2 AM IN A BOMBAY BATHROOM

Dia Bhojwani

CAS for Database

Claudia Ann Seaman Award

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

JBCN International School Oshiwara

Fiction

        They weave through the writhing bodies, Anaya’s nails digging into Kiara’s sweaty palm. The Bollywood music blaring out from the speakers is so loud every note reverberates in Anaya’s sternum. She aches, for a second, for the tranquility of her bedroom, the dog-eared copy of The Selfish Gene lying abandoned on her nightstand. They brush past bare thighs and flailing limbs, Anaya whispering apologies that can’t be heard over the noise. They emerge from the sea of adolescent flesh, a sigh of relief escaping her lips as she recognizes the bathroom door. Kiara slips from her grasp, arms slick with sweat, slamming the door with a thud. After a moment’s hesitation, Anaya follows her in.


        Blinking owlishly, it takes her eyes a moment to adjust to the glaring light. She sees a smudge of a girl in the mirror, her vision blurred without her glasses. The pulse of the party throbs through the door, muted. Kiara’s head is already over the toilet, honey-brown hair streaming over her back. Anaya thinks she hears a miserable retch from within the ceramic, and her heart clenches.


        Two pained blackcurrant eyes emerge from the toilet. “Why’d you come in?”


        “To hold back your hair. Or whatever.” She’d seen people doing it in American dramas, where most of her knowledge of nightlife came from.


        “Oh, A, you’re so sweet, thank you.” Kiara’s eyes convey such sincere gratitude that Anaya feels compelled to pull her own away a little. That was how she ended up there in the first place. She has no real desire to mingle with teenagers with booze-thick breath.


        Kiara had run into her class at break yesterday, breath coming out in ragged little pants. “He texted back.” After a week. Her eyes had gone so bright that Anaya decided not to remind her of that. “He’s going to this party tomorrow that Vihaan’s throwing. You remember him?” She did not. “Anyway. He wants me to come. He says he misses me.” She let the words linger on her tongue, savoring the taste. Then she looked up, eyes wide and lovely and pleading. “Come with me?” Anaya opened her mouth, ready to say no, she wasn’t going to watch Kiara chasing after another boy who’d discard her as soon as he got what he wanted, but her resolve was weakening in the face of Kiara’s wide, hopeful smile. Then her friend delivered the final blow. “Please? For me?”


        People always asked why they were still friends. Her mother, mouth as taut as a laundry line, disapproving. Classmates, eyes glinting, magpies hunting for a shiny sliver of gossip, a word, a phrase they could twist into the next big scandal. A hint of disrepute had begun to cling to Kiara, trailing behind her like woodsmoke. In another country, the parties, alcohol and boys would have made her popular. In India, it made her a pariah. An emblem of everything other teenagers longed for and feared. Anaya knew how it went. Every girl learnt it by rote. In this country, there were good girls and bad girls. Good girls bent their heads over their books, wore shirts that covered their navel, didn’t talk back.


        Kept their legs shut.


        Anaya was instantly identifiable as Kiara’s opposite. Bespectacled, flat-chested, hand up in class. Textbook good girl. Stock standard. But no one knew what she was. The eyes of teachers and teenagers, no matter how sharp, can’t penetrate the skin, can’t look into hearts. And hers didn’t beat, it stuttered. She doubted everything, trusted no one. Scrabbled her nails against smiling facades, looking for the mold. You can’t love me. I smile like you, and I don’t love you. Where’s the place where your words don’t line up, where the mirage shimmers? Let me into your head. I know what I’ll find there.


        But Kiara loved like she’d invented the feeling. Like a bird slamming against a plate glass window, again and again, always trusting that this time, this time, she’d fly through. There were no tricks with her. No mask, no illusion.


        And Anaya has no right to decide when people should kiss, she is reminded painfully as she pulls Kiara’s hair back and the dyed gold streams through her fingers. What she doesn’t put into practice, she has made into fantasy. Then, viscerally, she is yanked back to the day she found her coping mechanism, her salvation, her damnation.


        P.E. Walking up the stairs. Panting. Hair plastered to her neck, exhilarated about their 5-2 football win. Kiara was going on about an argument with her mother, an occurrence common enough that she managed to laugh through her retelling of it. Absent-mindedly, Anaya placed a hand on her back to guide her away from the wrong corridor.


        And then. And then.


        And then she realized, with a sudden, abrupt jolt, that she could feel the warmth of Kiara’s body pulsing through the thin cotton. The contours of a bra strap pressed themselves into the flat of her palm. She wondered if it would leave an indent if she left it there long enough. Something in her stomach sunk a little when she realized she almost hoped it would.


        “And then, I told my mom that she couldn’t tell me when I could come home anymore, alright? Because I’m nearly 16 now, it’s stupid! And she loses it—”


        Kiara went on, voice light, dipping and soaring like a bird, entirely unaware of Anaya’s stricken face. She wondered, mind slipping into a dazed fog, whether Kiara knew. Whether she knew that she smelt like summer, ripe and tart with the intermingled scent of citrus perfume and sweat, layered over something more earthy, musky, undeniably her. Whether she knew that when stray strands of hair escaped her ponytail, they flew about her ears and shoulders, gently tickling a hand that might happen to press against her, dizzying the person touching her with the prospect of what it might feel to run her hands through the waterfall of honey brown that streamed down her back. If she did, Anaya didn’t think that she would pine so desperately after boys that didn’t look twice. If she knew, Anaya didn’t think that she could help being lost in the wonder of the nape of her neck, the curve of her shoulder, the jut of her collarbone. She was almost certain that if she discovered that beauty, she couldn’t help but skim her hands down her sides, press her fingernails into the velvet soft pillow of her thighs.


        She felt her cheeks burn at that image, hot coals smoldering in her stomach. Her mind in a haze, she just about managed to discern that they’d reached class, Kiara had pulled away, and she was absolutely, and completely screwed.


        Crushes on other girls could be managed. She didn’t know them well enough to love them, so her feelings simmered at a low enough temperature that she could ignore the heat. But her best friend? Hellfire.


        But she thought, then, that love was a kind of disappearance. When you are enraptured by another, the trappings of yourself fall away, leaving only sensation. Perhaps the fire was worth burning in, if her self-hatred was reduced to ashes.


        Kiara gargles; pomegranate lipstick smudged by the water. It bleeds into the sink as she spits it out.


        “Did you flush?” Her voice is hoarse after vomiting.


        “Yeah.”


        Kiara turns the tap off. She hunches over the sink, party girl gone. Shoulders curved in, she looks like she wants to sink into herself. “He didn’t touch me after we were done.” Her voice is like lead. Heavy. “Should I have come?”


        Anaya doesn’t know. She sees herself in the mirror, hovering behind Kiara. Her eyes, dark as soot. The quiet strength in them. She and Kiara are the same, aren’t they? Trying to disappear into someone else to destroy themselves. Convincing themselves that loving is enough, that they can live without not being loved.


        Anaya tries to love herself. Loving someone that can’t love her the same way is a surer death.


        Kiara turns. Her eyeliner is smudged, and her eyes are tired. Light glances off her collarbones. Something unspeakable, unidentifiable hovers between them.


        She moves forward. Anaya knows what is coming. They’ve done it before. Every time a guy lets Kiara down.


        It is short and violent. More a thunderclap than a kiss. Kiara pulls back for a moment, and begins to lean back in. Anaya freezes. Places her hands between them.


        Her voice is soft but firm. “No.”


        She doesn’t say more, but the unspoken is understood. Not if you don’t love me like I love you. Not if it isn’t real.


        She is more than something that Kiara could lose herself in, a balm to assuage the pangs of wounded love. Kiara is more than the haze she could disappear into to forget herself. They’d love one day and be loved back. Above all, they’d have to learn to love themselves.


        Right now, what they could give to each other wasn’t enough.


        For a moment, Kiara’s body goes tense with hurt. Then her mouth slackens, and the heat in her eyes dies. She smiles. Slow, sweet, sad. Heavy with understanding.


        She offers her a hand. “Let’s go back out there?”


        Anaya hesitates. Takes her hand.


        Kiara opens the door and pulls her back out into the world. Into the crowd.

EDITORIAL PRAISE

"2AM IN A BOMBAY BATHROOM" is unapologetic in its portrayal of reality through surreal, evocative language. Cultural identity is braided into the characters, each description is a labyrinth waiting to be explored, and the coming-of-age narrative of romantic and platonic love all present themselves in a sophisticated harmony. The lines "In another country, the parties, alcohol and boys would have made her popular. ... In this country, there were good girls and bad girls." will remain with us forever.

Editorial Praise from Crystal Hana Kim, Fiction Judge:

“2am in a Bombay Bathroom” is an atmospheric, lush story about friendship and love. The writer deftly infuses sharp, sensory details to describe the all-consuming feelings of adolescence. I loved this line: “But Kiara loved like she’d invented the feeling. Like a bird slamming against a plate glass window, again and again, always trusting that this time, this time, she’d fly through. By following two teen girls at a party, the writer explores themes of feminism, self-worth, queer love, and how we seek to claim ourselves in a society that tries to constantly categorize (and control) women. Evocative of Toni Morrison and Ocean Vuong, “2 am in a Bombay Bathroom” was an exquisite read. There were so many moments that stilled my heart.

Dia Bhojwani (she/they) is a writer, activist and all-round scoundrel from JBCN International School, Mumbai, India. They've previously been published in Parallax Literary Magazine, Cathartic Youth Lit, and The Hearth Magazine, amongst others, and have won awards from Lune Spark and the Wingword Poetry Prize. Their first book, The Pandemic Diaries, was published in 2020. They love messy character arcs, button-down shirts, and Hawaiian pizza.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

First Place, Fiction