The invisible glass separates us, but it feels like there is so much more in between. Aniya hasn’t moved. The same seemingly lifeless doll connected to the machines and the tubes. Impossibly, I feel worse, even more lifeless. It hurts to see her, to be away from her. Yet, I am certain it is better than being close.
“Why do you like it so much?” I asked.
“Why don’t you?” she shot back.
No louder than a whisper, but in the silence of the night even the whisper carried. As if the world was on mute, only absent audience. It was the dark side, and here our privacy was absolute.
Aniya was twirling a cigarette between her fingers. I looked down to realise I was twirling the zippo lighter in mine. We were nearing the point where we were getting too comfortable with smoking. At least, it stayed in the dark side.
I wasn’t sure what I was asking about, nor was I sure about her answer. During the day, we were both on the same page. Reading our minds. But out here, on the dark side, it wasn’t the same. There was so much we didn't know, so much we were learning about ourselves. So much we were discovering. When we weren’t even sure about ourselves, how could we be so about each other. I was almost always confused, but Aniya was much more comfortable. As always, she had a better handle of it.
“Do we even know what we are talking about?”
The question got the reaction I was hoping for. Aniya looked at me, her fingers no longer twirling the cigarette. Giving me the penetrating stare, the one that had me wondering if she could stare right into my head and pick my thoughts. On most days she could do just that. But not tonight. Not on the dark side.
“What are we talking about?” she asked. When she realised I wasn’t giving an answer, she continued reluctantly. “I thought we were talking about the cigarette, the smoking,” she grinned through her answer.
I couldn’t not smile back. “I think I do like that, a little too much for comfort. But that’s just you spoiling me. But you know I wasn’t asking about that.”
“I know,” she said after a brief silence. “The dark side.” She said it much softer, and even the nest had to struggle to get it over to me.
“Yeah, the dark side,” I repeated, in agreement. My attempt at cheerfulness failing miserably. The grimness of the question surprised me. But I couldn’t fight the pull. I couldn’t not ride on the train of thought.
“I don’t know Ani, doesn’t it feel so very free out here, in the dark side?”
“Not really,” I answered honestly. “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
“Well let me tell you, and make it easy for you,” she said. “It is. It really is. It’s like you can let go of this other side of you, where you can live out all the mad fantasies. Just let go. Leave the rules and the expectations behind, and just be the maddest you you can be. And best of all, it’s our very own place. Just the two of ours.”
That I could understand. A place that was just ours. That I loved too. At home, with mom and dad and everyone, it felt right too. But here, on the dark side, just Aniya and I, felt more. Special.
“You know what I don’t get, why is it that we cannot be this at home? Why would we need the nest and the dark side?”
“Can you imagine smoking in front of mom? She’d go hysterical. Probably hand out a sound whopping. We’d probably be grounded like forever.”
The expression on her face was something I hadn’t ever seen before. Nor had I heard her speak as she did. I wasn’t sure what she meant, because I hadn’t ever seen aunt in that light.
“I doubt that,” I said, expressing my doubts. “I haven’t ever seen her like that.”
“Uh huh,” she grunted in reply, speaking no more. I hadn’t really understood anything, but the conversation was over. Reaching, she took the lighter from me and lit the cigarette between her lips. Dropping the lighter to the ground as she took a big puff.
“I love you Ani, but you’re a birdbrain,” she teased, blowing the smoke in my face as she handed me the cigarette.
“Yeah, you keep saying that. Even though your grades cannot compare to mine. Nor is there anyone who’d claim you to be smarter,” I spat back, blowing out a big puff in her face handing her the cigarette.
“Oh my, look at you, a tiger in the dark side,” she teased, snuggling close. It wasn’t really cold, but with her so close the warmth made the night feel colder than it was, and the proximity felt so much warmer.
“Shut up,” I said as serious as I could, putting my arm around her.
“Make me,” she challenged, making a face holding out the cigarette.
“Maybe I will,” I said, taking the cigarette. I didn’t though. I did nothing. But she was silenced, as she burst out laughing. I had to join in, after a brief hesitation.
Being with her, laughing through the night was enough back then. But now, it isn’t so. The memory of the night comes cutting through my head, slicing through the pain bearing down on me. It didn’t mean much then. It couldn’t. I didn’t know then, didn't have the slightest doubt, that I am different. Now I know. And what she said makes a lot more sense.
Could it be that aunt was different with me? Did she know something that I didn’t? Was that why Aniya could only grunt in reply? Was she not supposed to tell me something?
It wasn’t like we never earned ourselves disapproving looks. It was far from the first time. But never this stern. Or was it really stern?
But then, what had we been thinking? A group of teenagers shouldn’t be left alone in a classroom without a teacher’s supervision. Especially not after a long boring day. And especially not for a whole period.
Starting from the very first period, it had been a long day. It was almost like the teachers were all on a mission. By the end of the fifth of the seven periods, we had three surprise tests, four announcements of quizzes in the next week, and so much to write as we hadn’t all month. It was thus that the sixth period being free was too much. We were rearing to go crazy, and there couldn't be a more perfect outlet. Even more so since there wouldn’t be anyone supervising us. We were entirely to ourselves, and we were definitely going to be at our best behaviour.
In the classroom it wasn’t really possible for us all to be together. The twenty six of us broke down into our smaller groups. Each getting busy in their own interests. Ours was the biggest, obvious because we had Aniya. She was the class heartthrob, having been officially given the title by the male population. There were eight of us, surprisingly, four boys and four girls. It would be a crime to let such a perfect scenario slip by. It was thus that we decided to play the most dangerous game in our arsenal, truth or dare. By itself it wouldn’t be so dangerous, if it wasn’t for the brutality we brought to it. We had to be brutally honest to the probing questions, or we had to accept the scandalous dares.
Settling around a desk, we turned the bottle. But before it could stop, we had more joining the game. The first round was a dare. Avinash always chose dare, too chicken for the truth we teased. But no matter what the dare, he would do it, which earned him enough respect.
Upskirt. That one word explained the dare to us all, splitting the class along the middle. One half with the boys eagerly waiting with eyes open as far as humanly possible, and the other half the girls, pressing their skirts around their legs, struggling to hold in their embarrassment. The group of three girls, Tina, Saranya, and Rupa, were lost in their phones though. Unaware of the dare, they were easy targets. Avinash walked over, and without hesitation, slipped under Tina. What followed was so great, the entire class walked over and joined around the table. A shrill scream, a sharp slap and loud laughter. Tina was bright pink all across her face, Avinash was bright red on one side. But we were all laughing. There couldn’t have been a more perfect start.
As the bottle turned, questions were answered about virginities, kisses, bases covered, favourite colours for underpants. Dares were performed ranging from grabbing privates, to lap dancing, to tying pencils to the bangs of the long hair. Everyone was at their absurd best. And finally, the bottle pointed towards Aniya. She always chose truth, and she answered every question without batting an eyelid. But today, they weren’t going to let her choose truth. The choice was made for her, and the dare was given. A steamy kiss with a lot of tongue. There was a general nod of approval for the dare. The readiness with which Aniya accepted stunned everyone.
“Alright then, a steamy hot kiss it will be,” she said standing straight. If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind as to who she would kiss, it was gone the next instant as she smiled at me. It was supposed to be her dare, but I knew it was just as much mine now. And I wasn’t going to keep Aniya waiting.
I didn’t have to. I was right next to her. She pulled me close, wrapping her hands around me, planting her lips on mine. Kissing my upper lip first, then the lower, before parting my lips open with her tongue. With my lips open, her tongue went in exploring. As our tongues met and waltzed, she grabbed a handful of my hair, pulling herself closer. Pressing hard into me. It was supposed to be a dare, but I could see she was enjoying herself too much. She did love putting a show. When we broke up, she was grinning, at me and at the astonished class. Mouths hanging open all around.
“Who’s next?” she asked loudly, bringing about a round of weak laughter that was short-lived, because the answer came from beyond the gathering.
“That would be me.”
We recognised the voice long before we saw his face. Mr Prasad was standing with a mixture of disbelief and disapproval on his face.
“Everyone please get back to your seats right now. And you two, Aniya and Ani, wait up after class. We’re going to have a discussion, with your parents,” he announced.
After school, we were waiting in class, when Mr Prasad walked in with both our parents. He recounted the episode, but wasn’t very pleased with the slight amusement the dads couldn’t keep from showing on their faces. The seriousness of the moms’ expressions satisfied him enough to leave us to our parents.
“I don’t want to make a big deal of this. It’s only within this class, and I trust it will remain so. Which is why I leave it to you to deal with them,” he said, letting us go.
“What were you thinking?” aunt asked, clearly not pleased.
“We were playing mom,” Aniya answered coolly. “You know, the same game you used to play as kids. Truth or dare. Where we turn a bottle and the one it points to has to.”
“Don’t teach us the game Aniya,” aunt cut in before Aniya could finish. Aniya did the same, cutting in before aunt could finish.
“Well then I don’t have to explain. My dare was a steamy kiss. Who else was I going to kiss?” she asked, as if that settled everything.
It did for the others, but not for aunt. She held the disapproving stare for a full minute before joining in the laughter. Thankfully, I wasn’t asked anything. They were in agreement that it was entirely the act of Aniya.
That was one of the few times I saw aunt angry. I didn’t realise it then, but looking back now, I know. It wasn’t just simple disapproval. It was anger. She was angry with Aniya. Of course the scolding was all she gave, but she was still angry. And that makes me wonder, was there more to what Aniya hadn’t said. Was I blind to something that had been right in my face?