A story starts like this and ends like that. But sometimes we can only guess when a story really starts and wonder if it ever really ends.
My story starts when Priya and I spit into our matching tiny plastic vials. We spit until they’re full—mine, slightly yellow-tinged; Priya’s, clear and frothy.
“You so have a sinus infection,” she says. “That’s gross.”
It does make me wonder. I forgot to brush my teeth that morning, and I’m too embarrassed to admit it. I wonder if Priya is turned off by me now, repulsed enough to not want to kiss me later tonight. I blush.
“Shut up,” I cap my vial and slide it into the pre-coded envelope. “People have different-colored saliva just like they have different shades of whiteness to their teeth.”
I don’t know whether that’s true, but Priya usually believes me when it comes to science. Or math. Or anything related to school and academics, actually. We’re both academic achievers, as our teachers like to say. Perhaps unhealthily so, but we’re competitive and eager to excel so we’re not about to change. We also have to put up with the nicknames at school: Smart and Smarter (although it’s unclear who’s Smart and who’s Smarter), the A-Team, and the Einstein Twins, to name a few. We don’t mind; in fact, we welcome it. When it comes to the other stuff, like how to act around people; what not to say so I won’t come off as the biggest nerd on earth; an approximation of what to wear; what music to listen to; and generally, how to transform myself into a person who can successfully disappear in school by blending in—well, then I rely on Priya. My parents are old hippies, so I can’t count on them for suggestions on how to fit in. They normally only suggest things that make my situation worse, although that unconditional love thing is a decent enough trade-off.
“Aww . . . you’re so cute when you blush.” Priya comes up behind me and wraps her arms around my waist, one narrow brown hand still clasping her sealed vial. I feel the warmth of her cheek pressed against my shoulder. Her soft breasts pushing against my back. The touch of her hand on my belly stirring sleeping butterflies.
“I’m not cute,” I blurt out in typically clumsy, self-effacing manner. It isn’t charming, and I know that, but can’t help myself and don’t feel I have to when I’m with Priya. She circles around to face me.
“Miss Tatiana Woodland, you’re as cute as . . .”
I scrunch my face in barely disguised disgust. “Hercules is a Pekinese.”
“But not just any Pekinese. Hercules is my Pekinese.”
“Well, since you put it that way.”
“Okay, here’s your spit.” She pushes the vial into my hand.
“No, actually that’s your spit. Mine’s already in the envelope ready to go.”
“My spit, okay, but your idea. Remind me again why we’re wasting your parents’ money and our precious bodily fluids.”
“Remind me why we need to get an A in Ethnic Studies in a project that was originally your idea.”
“Was it? A dumb idea in retrospect.”
“Oh. Oh. Did I just hear an admission of weakness from Priya Gupta? Anyway, it’s too late. Like you said, wasting my parents’ money and all.”
“I’m just messing with you. It’s going to be a cool project. Although I’m pretty sure I already know what my results will be—100% Indian subcontinent. Zero percent everything else, although it would be fun to have a surprise. But you already know your birth parents were Ukrainian.”
“Don’t tell them that.”
“Okay, the next time I never meet them I won’t. And don’t tell them I said so when you never meet them.”
I give her the glare—my goofy glare, she calls it.
“All right, let’s go mail these. The sooner we get rid of them, the sooner I can erase the image of your gross yellow spit from my mind.”
I flush warm again and she sees it. “Kidding!” She stands on tippy-toes to offer a soft, plushy kiss, something I rarely receive from her in her own home. Even with Priya’s dad at work and her mom picking up her little brother, Nikky, from school, it’s a huge deal—forbidden, and therefore all the more delicious. I slide my hands up her sides until they rest on her shoulders, and gently pull her closer to me.
The kiss ends and Priya’s wet tongue darts across my face in one bold sweep. “There’s a little more spit for good measure.” She giggles.
When she lowers her heels to the ground, taking her kiss with her, I can still feel its ghost on my lips. I wipe the wetness away in an exaggerated motion of disgust with the back of my hand. Hercules watches us intently from the open doorway to her bedroom, his front paws splayed outward, his turquoise collar studded with rhinestones. Does Hercules know he’s witnessing something rare in this household? A moment of pure, unguarded bliss. He slow-wags and then pads away down the hall toward the den where he spends most of his day lounging on a pillow by the fireplace.
“How come . . .” My eyes slide to my feet and my shoulders slump as the rest of the sentence catches in my throat.
“Tati, c’mon.” Priya draws out the second word and her voice takes on that distant quality, the tone she uses when she’s leading a group discussion or solving an equation on the board in front of the class. Her serious, problem-solving voice. Her absolutely-uninterested-in-indulging-the-petty-emotions-of-silly-children-like-me voice.
“C’mon, what? You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
The spark of fun that lit her eyes just seconds ago has extinguished. “I know exactly what you were going to say,” she says dolefully. “Sometimes I think I know you better than you know yourself. And you already know the answer, so why keep belaboring the point?”
“Do you even love me?” I ask in full self-pity mode. It’s a train wreck I can’t stop.
“Of course I love you.” She steps forward to press against me again and tilts her face toward mine. I can feel her warm breath against my throat, and the tiny hairs on my body stand up. “Who loves you more?”
“Okay, maybe equal, but who loves you more?” She raises her hand to cradle the side of my face so gently that my fingertips actually tingle. Her eyes grow round with concern. The humorless schoolteacher voice is gone just as suddenly as it arrived. My Priya is back. “I love you, Tati. My parents are conservative, you know that. They wouldn’t understand . . . us.”
“It’s getting harder and harder for me to understand us,” I say stubbornly, apparently on a mission to sabotage our relationship. Sleepovers at my house are where happiness takes place—hugging, nuzzling, kissing. Sleepovers at Priya’s are relegated to the friend zone—simple schoolgirl stuff like homework, binge-watching our favorite Netflix shows, and stuffing popcorn in our mouths. “When you sleep at my house everything’s real. When I stay at your house . . . I don’t even know what we are. I’m sorry but it’s not right. What are we? Are we a couple? Are we really even in love?”
Priya’s face darkens again, and she pulls away from me. Her eyes latch on to mine. “You’re sorry? You’re the one with the cool parents who let you do anything you want. Maybe a little sympathy for me? You think I like living all confined like this? And, by the way, how many kids do you know whose parents would be cool with them sleeping with their lover? In their own bed? Under their parents’ roof? Your parents are a little weird, Tati. Admit it.”
I know she’s mad. I’ve pushed too hard, but I couldn’t help myself. It doesn’t take a whole lot to trigger feelings of insecurity in me despite the best efforts of loving and supportive parents. The doubting voice that speaks to my darkest fears late at night tells me Priya does like living within the confines of her parents’ narrow-minded social beliefs. It’s her excuse for keeping us a secret at school, among our friends. Priya wants it both ways—all hers when she wants me, free as a bird when she doesn’t. But then my rational-self fights back—Priya loves me like no other. She’s my soulmate. Who am I to accuse her of duplicity when she’s suffering more than me? Do I really want to risk losing her over another confrontation? One day she’ll have enough, and will I be prepared to go on without Priya in my life? I don’t think so.
Hercules is back in the doorway, peering into Priya’s room, most likely alarmed by the uncharacteristically loud and unhappy voices disturbing his tranquility. His ears are perked, and he angles his head for a better listen. His collar is silver, glistening. A small bell jangles under his chin. My knees suddenly feel loose, as if they might buckle if I shift my weight even one centimeter in either direction. A thrum starts low and grows louder, like a tuning fork hit against the side of my head.
“How did Hercules change his own collar?” I ask before sit-crashing to the ground. I pull my legs up and bury my face between my knees, drawing in great heaving gulps of air.
“Tati.” Priya kneels and brings her lips close to my ear. “You okay?” she whispers.
“Hercules’s collar was blue.” Tears stream down my face. “Just ten minutes ago.”
“No, it’s silver,” she says. “It’s always been silver. Tati, is it happening again? Are you having a seizure? Have you been taking your meds?”
So many questions.
Priya unfastens the top button of my shirt, sits down, and pulls my head into her lap. She strokes my hair and coos to me, but what she’s saying, I can no longer hear. The tunnel appears where it’s always been before—just above me, gleaming with such intensity, a light so bright it seems white. Beckoning.