"Do you even know how to use a condom?"

Alka absolutely hated everything about the summer. She hated how everything would cling to her skin—her hair, her clothes, her boyfriend. If it were up to her, as soon as the clock struck April, so to speak, she would shed her body completely—live out the summer as a purely cerebral being. This fantasy would often take hold of her, more so now that May was near, and completely derail her from every other task at hand.

“What’s taking you so long? Hurry up!” Meenu’s words seemed to pierce through the door.

Alka wanted to scream back at her friend to shut up, but she was already waging a humid war against her own body. All of the five million little pores in her skin fought back and she refused to add Meenu’s impatience to her aggravation.

Her sticky skin was making the endeavour of pulling up her one-piece swimsuit much harder than it should have been. She was doing her best, she told herself, as she tried to squeeze all her body’s folds into the main chamber of the black ‘SEXXXY ONE PIECE’ lycra suit. She’d already sucked in her breath till her stomach had turned concave. It didn’t help that the changing room had no ventilation or electricity. Now, she was drenched in sweat and darkness and had to contort her body to touch her back a few times to confirm she was wearing the swimsuit right.

Meenu began knocking on the door incessantly. “Open up, open up, open up, open up, open up!”

“Shut up, I’m coming pa! Why are you so annoying?” Alka asked, stepping out. The sun’s mid-morning glare suddenly made her eyes hurt.

“You were taking forever. I just thought something had happened,” Meenu said. She seemed to have already changed and showered, and her chest and shoulders were dotted with tiny droplets of water that glistened in the sunlight.

“There was no light. And I was sweating like a pig.”

“Wow, look at you! That suit is so hot.” Meenu immediately struck her palm out and rubbed Alka’s stomach, grinning. “And oh, so smooth.”

“Ugh, stop.” Alka laughed, swatting it away.

“How did your mother let you buy it? Literally most of your butt is hanging out,” Meenu said.

Alka said nothing and continued to rummage through her tote bag for a rubber band to tie her hair up.

“Wait. Does she know you bought this?” Meenu asked. Her eyebrows were hovering intently over her dark aviators.

“Hmm?” Alka pretended not to hear her. But she couldn’t help but smile sheepishly anyway.

“You sly bitch,” Meenu said. “How much was it?”

“It wasn’t too expensive,” Alka said, fastening her hair in a messy bun.

“Mmm-hmm. Yeah sure,” Meenu said.

Alka let Meenu’s words hang in the air between them. That familiar urge was bubbling its way up her throat—the urge to explain herself, to tell Meenu how elaborate and exhausting the process of secretly procuring the swimsuit had been. But she resisted, mainly because she did not want Meenu to know how much of her savings she’d really spent.

Meenu’s dark blue swimsuit used to have a bright pink dolphin in the middle of her chest. Alka remembered how excited Meenu had been when her father had finally let her buy it after she’d won first place at the swimming meet at school. She also remembered how, only a few months afterwards, Meenu had carefully peeled the sticky dolphin off using her compass because “she was not a child anymore”. And now, almost as if to prove her point, her nipples seemed to be poking out like beady buttons on either side of the faded outline of a once smiling dolphin.

Alka made her way to the open shower head off to the side of the pool, but remembered that Meenu had earlier said that it was broken.

“Um…” Alka was perplexed as she watched a water droplet steadily roll down the side of Meenu’s leg, pulling others with it as it went, growing until it finally puddled at her feet. “How are you wet if the shower’s not working?”

Meenu pointed to a hose pipe that was dripping water on the grass.

“You used that? You just hosed yourself?”

“Oh, yeah. Doggy-style,” Meenu smirked.

Alka scoffed despite herself. Just the other day, she had told Meenu that Arjun showed her porn on his phone on the way back home from school. Ever since, Meenu brought it up every single chance she had.

“Shut up,” Alka said. She held the pipe above her head and tried to “shower” as thoroughly as a garden hose pipe would allow. She then made her way to the edge of the pool. Her flip-flops squelched loudly and left dark bean-shaped marks on the concrete when she walked. She watched as the watermark slowly evaporated, leaving no trace of her footsteps behind.

If she were to disappear at this very instant, there would be nothing left to show she’d even been there at all.

Lately, the thought of disappearing popped into her mind often. Not even at difficult moments, like when she was studying for her calculus midterms, or when Arjun asked her to send him pictures of herself in her bra. It came unannounced at times like this, when she was doing something ordinary, like staring at her own feet. It was a little like that feeling she had when she stared at a word in a book for a long time and suddenly something familiar and meaningful began looking strange.

She wriggled her toes to see if she could feel them.

A loud splash broke her out of her reverie and she looked up just in time to see Meenu’s sleek dark blue figure gliding soundlessly towards her end of the pool. Swimming was one of the few things she was better at than Alka. And ever since she’d begun competing in inter-school competitions, her shoulders had become firmer and wider and her arms had become smoother and her stomach much less pudgy. Changing beside Meenu in the locker room at school compelled Alka to hold the towel around her own body more tightly.

“Is your Royal Highness planning on getting in?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Alka said, slipping her flip-flops off and sitting down a little hastily before jumping into the pool. It was all done with a flourish of gracelessness that Alka’s mother would have silently disapproved of.

The water was pleasantly cool even though the blue surface was crisscrossed with yellow streaks of the sun. It was only a small community pool at Meenu’s housing enclave, but since there were no other children their age who lived there, they had the luxury of pretending it was their own private pool.  The truth was they loved spending time there simply because they got to tell all their classmates on Monday that they’d hung out by the pool all weekend.

Alka squealed loudly and jumped when she felt a pair of hands between her thighs. Meenu rose out of the water with her bangs plastered to her face, laughing her big belly laugh.

They spent the next twenty minutes floating like starfish, with their arms and legs splayed out. It had become quiet. The silence between them did not make Alka tense like it did when she was around Arjun, or even her parents. With Meenu, she let it wash over her without worrying about drowning.

“Alka, say something?” Meenu said.

It always amazed Alka that Meenu could just ask that, without hesitating. How could she never worry that the other person would just say ‘no’? But Meenu, she’d realised, always just said what she was thinking. It must be so easy, Alka thought, to not have to turn words over and over and over again in her mind until they lost all shape.

No, Meenu just asked people to speak. And people around her did as she told them.

“Like what?” Alka asked.


Alka knew she meant that—anything.

“Do you sometimes feel like you’re leading a completely fake life?” Alka found herself asking.

“What do you mean?”

“Like do you sometimes feel like you’re not even really here? Or, like, you’re not even really you?”

They’d drifted off to a corner of the pool that fell under the gulmohar tree. In its cool shadow, they could float about without squinting. Meenu was quiet for a while.

“Sometimes, when Appa and I fight, and he is screaming, I want to just float away. Just like this, actually. Like I am somewhere outside my body,” she said softly. She raised her palm in the air to show the spot where she imagined herself hovering. Spots of the sun were dancing, scattered across her body, and her brown arm looked very shiny.

“How has that been?” Alka asked.

“It’s gotten a little better now, actually. I think he likes his new job.”

“Yeah? That’s good.”

“Yeah. He’s even been going out for dinners with his colleagues a lot lately. And he is actually almost happy when he comes home.”

“That’s good.”


They were now floating really close together and their hips and shoulders would softly bump against each other from time to time.

“Arjun wants to have sex,” Alka said.



“He told you?”



“Yesterday. On the phone.”

“Like he just told you? Like—” Meenu lowered her voice to the baritone she used to imitate men, “Hey, uh, Alka, uh, I want to have sex with you.”

Alka laughed. “I mean he didn’t sound like a dumbass. But yes. He said that.”

Meenu was quiet for a moment. “But you’re fifteen,” she finally said.

“I’ll be sixteen in two weeks,” Alka said quickly.

“Oh yeah, okay, big diff,” Meenu scoffed.

“So you don’t think I should do it?”

“He’s eighteen years old!”

“Yeah. And apparently, all his friends are doing it with their girlfriends.”


“So I think it’s okay if we do it. I don’t see what the big deal is,” Alka said.

“What? So sex is suddenly not a big deal?”

“He’s been my boyfriend for almost two years now.”

Meenu just shook her head and looked away.

“I mean it’s not like we haven’t done other things, you know,” Alka continued.

“Okay. So you’ll just have sex at fifteen? You want to be that girl?”

They were both standing now, and somehow, despite the fact that they were still in water and somewhat outside the clutches of gravity, Alka suddenly felt the weight of her full body on her chest.

“What girl is that?”

“A slut. Like that girl Maya from St. Mary’s, who ran away with that boy and got pregnant,” Meenu said.

“That was just a rumour, Meenu,” Alka said.

“Whatever, Alka. Okay. Fine! Do what you want. And, like, get pregnant. I don’t care.” Meenu’s voice steadily got louder and at ‘don’t care’ Alka had to look around to make sure no one could hear them.

“I won’t become pregnant!” she hissed.

“Do you even know how to use a condom?”

Alka did not understand the mechanics of condom usage, or sex, for that matter, but she was not admitting that to Meenu. But it seemed she didn’t have to.

“Oh my god! You don’t even know!”

“I can find out,” Alka muttered under her breath.

“Alka,” Meenu’s eyes looked too bright suddenly as she stared intently at Alka. “You cannot Wikihow ‘How to have sex’,” she finally exhaled. “Not like how we did with kissing, anyway.”

Alka stayed quiet.

“Wait. Oh no. Oh, Alka, did you actually do that? Did you actually google ‘How to have sex’?” Meenu looked hysterical.

“No,” Alka said quietly.


“No, I googled, ‘How to have sex without getting pregnant’,” Alka said. She hated how her voice sounded squeaky and unconvincing even to herself.

Meenu began laughing and despite herself, Alka also laughed. It was such an easy laugh that rumbled out from her chest that she usually found it hard not to join in whenever Meenu laughed. They both had tears in their eyes.

“I can’t. Just,” Meenu said. “You stupid bitch.”

But the words carried no spite. And Meenu only ever called Alka a bitch when she was feeling either exasperation or affection for her and now it was a bit of both. Alka liked that she could make her laugh. Not that she was exactly trying to at this point. But whatever. The outcome was all that mattered.

“Okay,” Meenu finally said with a little sigh.


“Okay, fine. Go have sex or whatever. But—”

“I don’t need your permission to have—”


“Okay, okay. What were you going to say?”

“But,” Meenu said pointedly, “I will make sure you know exactly what you’re going to do so you don’t end up a pregnant slut okay?”

“Firstly, um how are you going to do that? And secondly—”

“I don’t think that’s a word—”

“It is! But also shut up. Stop interrupting me. And secondly,” Alka continued, “that’s just rude. To call someone a slut.”

“No Alku. I just don’t want you to be a pregnant slut. You can totally be a slut if that’s what you want. And as your best friend in the whole entire world, it could even be claimed that I, as someone who has your best interests at heart, would only want you to be the best slut in the world,” Meenu said.

Alka let out a surprised bark of a laugh.

“There’s just the one boy,” she said.

“For now,” Meenu smirked.

They decided to leave the pool early and head to Meenu’s house. By now, both of them were feeling the irritation of the strong chlorine that coated their skin like cling film. Alka kept burping and Meenu kept rubbing her reddening eyes. With thick towels wrapped around their waists and wet tangled hair falling limply on their shoulders, they slowly made their way back.

It was a small gated enclave with rows upon rows of houses that looked the exact same. Every single duplex was painted the same shade of creamy beige and had a tomato-red tiled roof. Meenu had told Alka that her father had bought it because it made him think of Spanish villas. And then Meenu had gone on to scoff at her father’s logic.

Meenu’s house was a few lanes over from the pool and Alka was confused when Meenu turned into a lane going in the opposite direction.

“Wait, where are we going?”

Meenu said nothing, but she kept walking like she had a specific destination in mind.

As Alka looked around, she realised that even the types of cars owned by everyone in the enclave were indistinguishable.

The only factor that made a house different from the next was the state of the garden. You could tell that some houses had old retirees or full-time working couples or bachelors or housewives by how tall and green the grass was in front of their house. Some had flowering shrubs that needed constant pruning and tending, while others had just planted ornamental trees that didn’t need any care.

The house Meenu stopped at had such trees, but that was not why they were there. Tied out front, beside a cherry red Volkswagen car, was the most beautiful golden retriever that Alka had ever laid eyes on. Alka noticed a skip in Meenu’s step just as the dog began wagging its tail enthusiastically.

“Aw, cutie! How are you, Biscuit?” she crooned.

“His name is Biscuit? That’s adorable,” Alka said.

He’s adorable. Aren’t you, boy? Yes, you are. Yes!”

Meenu was still squatting at the dog’s eye level when Alka realised they weren’t alone.


Alka looked up to see a man standing by the door. He wasn’t as old as their parents—Alka could tell from the way he was dressed in just shorts and a T-shirt, despite the few greys peppering his hair and beard.

“Oh it’s you, Meenakshi. How are you?”

Alka knew Meenu hated it when people called her that—Meenakshi. Only her father called her that. Alka watched as Meenu stood up suddenly, a little hastily.

“Oh, hi… uncle. Hi,” she said, looking a little flushed. And then, as Alka watched, Meenu reached out and flicked her hair off her chest and pushed it behind her shoulder. She also seemed to be standing a little too straight, her chest thrust out a little too forward.

“How many times have I told you not to call me ‘uncle’, Meenakshi? It makes me feel old, child,” he said with a little laugh that made his Adam’s apple bob up and down. Alka even saw Meenu’s lips twitch ever so slightly at the word ‘child’.

“You know my name, don’t you, Meenakshi?” He smiled. Biscuit was licking his palm but his eyes remained fixed on them.

“I do,” Meenu said. “Sid.”

“Good girl. And you haven’t introduced me to—is this your friend?”

Meenu started, a bit flustered. “Oh yes, this is my friend. From school. Alka,” she said a little breathlessly.

Alka, like Meenu, it seemed, hadn’t realised that she herself was also a part of the conversation. Or that anyone wanted her to be. She wondered if Meenu would have even noticed if she’d just vanished.

“Hi, Alka. I’m Sid. Nice to meet you,” he said, reaching out for a handshake. Alka’s hand disappeared in his plate-sized palm when they shook hands.

“Hi, uncle,” Alka said.

“No, not you too, Alka. No, please call me Sid,” he said with that same effortless laugh.


“Alka has a boyfriend!” the words came tumbling out of Meenu, who looked mortified when she realised what had happened. Alka simply gawked at her. Sid, on the other hand, looked nonplussed.

“Oh, that’s nice to hear. I see you’ve been for a swim,” he said. His eyes dropped for just a beat, down to Meenu’s chest, before they settled on her face again.

“Oh yeah. It was good. Fun…” she trailed off.

“That sounds good. I am thinking of going for one myself,” he said. “In the evening, probably, after sundown.”

Meenu nodded hastily, as if she might not be done with swimming for the day.

“Oh yeah, you should. The water is divine,” she said.

“Sounds good. Doesn’t it, Biscuit?” he said patting the dog’s head.

Meenu looked ready to faint.

“Uh… I think we should head. You look a little red, Meenu,” Alka said.

“What? Nothing, I am fine. But we should head. Yes. Home? Yes.”

“See you, girls. Have a good day. Oh, and Meenakshi,” he said, “Stop by more often. I know how much Biscuit likes you,” he said.

“Oh, uh, of course I will,” Meenu said, turning away from him abruptly. She began walking swiftly. Alka followed until she fell in step with her friend, and looked back once to make sure Sid was out of earshot. He had gone back inside with Biscuit in tow.

It was just her and Meenu again.

“Slut,” she said, to no one in particular. Meenu pretended not to hear her. They walked back home with two sets of bean-shaped marks trailing them home.