Seventeen, or the year when—I stood in the kitchen, windowpane glass pulling opaque shadows across my flesh, across my mother’s petticoat worn low on my hipbone, an angle and plane waveform that was my body, desirable in its foal-like newness, my face and shoulders an unexplored terrain of acne, cutting scars, and hyperpigmentation. I leaned against the sink, my hands under hard water. A light flickered in the A-flat mirroring ours on the second floor, and I saw a woman, tall, taller even than me, her hair shorn in places and longer still in others, as though she had snatched fistfuls of curls and dragged a pair of scissors through them in the humid-heavy dark. Brush strokes against teeth, gums spuming, her smile fluoride-bright, toothpaste ribboning into the sink. And just like that, I lost myself to her.
A month had passed, when—we lay entwined around each others’ thighs in a hotel room on the coast. The swell of the Shorn Woman’s torso against my knuckles, my mouth. Baby scorpions tinted red with stripes rained down from a hole in the ceiling, skittering their escape between the petal-curve of her toes. They never bit us.
Later, always later, she lit a Gold Flake and coughed through the fumes. I took the cigarette from the Shorn Woman and finished it quietly, because she knew as I knew that she held soft places, phlegm-glazed lungs, even if she was thirty years old, even if she wanted to appear remote in a way that promised competence. The Shorn Woman branded herself a runaway-in-statis, a velaiyilla pattathari—no rural banking job, no prospects, no wifeable abilities, and no Tamil hero-like swagger where she could let the cigarette fall into her mouth from a great height, an improbable sleight-of-hand, let the smoke furl out of her nose in a controlled show of machismo. Instead, she would grab my ankles and kiss the older lines whitening into history across my tarsal bones, newer lines burning pink and true around my heel, a devotion for her tongue. Because she knew as I knew that I was the only one with the razor-blade, the only one who paid for the hotel rooms, the only one who cut, and the only one who bled.
One Thursday, at the basilica of Our Lady of Good Health or the Lourdes of the East when—I saw the Shorn Woman with a man. They stopped at the maatha kulam or the Pool of the Mother, a well that ringed the first Marian apparition on the premises; a vision involving a shepherd, a maiden with a child, an afternoon sun that tipped exhaustion over their heads, and a frothing pot of milk that never emptied. I watched the Shorn Woman kneel alongside this man, making myself scarce, hemming myself further into the shade of the Via Crucis. The man held her hand as though it was a benediction, as though he understood the pounding-heart-in-ribcage fluke of his luck, of his coconut-oiled scalp and dependable job, the annihilating brushfire of her that was more beautiful than anything he had, or would ever encounter in his lifetime.
The Shorn Woman’s hair appeared longer since I had seen her last, smoothing into a bob that cupped the left side of her face. She was so lovely, and I hated myself for craving this version of her with the neatly-parted promise of a bridegroom, their meshed futures. I tugged the pleated skirt of my school uniform over my kneecaps, suddenly hyper aware of the age difference elastic-banding between us, snapping and stretching across our bodies as I turned around and continued into the Way of Sorrows, into the shrine housing the sari-clad Virgin bowered in blue silks and candle wax.
That night, when—I sat on the roof, an inverted triangle of need pooling under my kurta, my razor-blade crosshatched relief into my left thigh as I voided myself into apathy. A murukku wrapped in palm fronds flew across the concrete pit separating our houses and landed by my feet, my phone flashing alive at that exact moment with a single notification: இப்போ வா.
Come over, now.
About three minutes later, panting at her door, my murukku-stuffed mouth spilling excuses about physics coaching and board exams, her parents waving me upstairs to her room, and I wondered if they knew, if they heard her bite screams into my shoulder, as each of my fingers and then my entire fist clenched into the Shorn Woman, her breaching, me bloodletting.
We had long given up on hotel rooms by then, melting into practicalities of need and money and need and more money. I couldn’t pay for the rooms anymore, couldn’t afford to rely on my there-then-suddenly-gone cash from an awkward stint as a Brylcreem 3-in-1 Hair for Men salesgirl at a mall kiosk. I couldn’t pay, and the Shorn Woman couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, even when I tunneled myself deeper into the gorge of effort as it continued to widen between our levels of interest, even as she could not, would not try. Paravaale ma, she always said. Who cares?
I do, I always replied.
This was how we ended up in each other’s homes, our rooms, the boxed-in bandhanis of our narrow cots. All we did was lie to our parents and everyone else. Lying was as familiar to us as an unwashed period stain that folded over our bodies in a hematite-red smear since our chests budded, since we realized that there were no other ways of being, no other ways of becoming. I was better at lying than most, having polished the glassy ‘nalla ponnu’ veneer—the sad/good girl who was studious, loathed boys, had a pleasing affinity for accounting, and wore tent-like clothes that haloed an intentional sexlessness around my frame. I kept score by notching each of my lies into existence through the lines on my flesh, a banded second skin cloaking my own, an armor of hurt that I could never remove, because I had finally found a way to unfold.
Before, before when—our bodies taprooted around each other, before I could allow the nub of hope in my stomach to divide into babysoft cotyledons and pull apart my mouth as it reeled itself out, we talked for a whole week over the phone. The second time I saw the Shorn Woman, she was a blue-black shadow lacquered against the sun. As she watched, I mimed my cell number from the kitchen window, my torso anxiety-puddling into liquid, my shame compounding into multiple limbs that sprouted arms and fingers and elbows to desperately hush me with. But the next day, she had called.
Our conversations ranged from the podi dosais she had eaten for dinner, to her wanton yet specific acts of arson, to every man she had slept with—sometimes unwillingly, to our shared adoration of the bilingual film Maro Charitra. We could not agree on who or what we loved more—the Telugu heroine with collyrium-ringed eyes and a frown that held the entire known universe. The Tamil hero with the too-young face and an astonishing bank of teeth. The cresting storm-surge of their doomed love amid their families furrowed in violence, machetes, and bike chains. Nēnu Telugu ammāyini, I whispered. I am Telugu, just like the heroine. A sudden laugh, belling from the Shorn Woman’s throat. I am not your Tamil hero.
Right then, I knew that had the Shorn Woman asked, I would have poured myself over a cliff-face and troughed under the ocean waves, churning into an oblation, again and again and again for her. If only she had asked.
At her wedding, when—I watched the Shorn Woman exchange vows with the man. I was draped in a midnight-hued half sari pinpricked with silver, my barely-there blouse an exhale over my shoulders, ghost-pale and furred with cuts. I set myself up for display like a marquee-lit shopfront, my obsession tracking fresh gullies that required tending, a beacon to rush towards.
Eyes moved in tandem and shifted into place as I made my way past the wedding party—from the thavil players and their linen-sheathed knuckles, from the priests fumbling through the Eucharistic prayer in Tamil, from the bridesmaids and groomsmen arrayed in the palest green saris and veshtis, to the man with his safari suit, to the Shorn Woman lustrous in organza. At last, I wore a skin that drew a rise of attention, turning heads in pity or terror or want or need. I did not care, having hoarded enough goodwill with my ongoing theater of modesty to buy my parents’ boredom, to buy their permission at my choice of half sari over the salwars I usually shrouded myself in. They looked pleased at this smudge of life in their daughter—a safe, brief teaspoonful that reminded them that I was a girlpersonhuman carrying internal organs and a load-bearing backbone, within limits. And so I unwrapped, peeling back sheets of submission, my form caked under everyone else’s expectations as their faces enameled over with approval, their comfort-meters sated.
The wedding attendees began filing out of the church and into the food shamiana in twos and threes. I chose a seat with a full view of the marriage dais as the waitstaff swarmed over me, pushing excess ladlefuls of sambar and mutton varuval and rice on my banana leaf, grasping moths to my signal-flare that beamed an unhinged desirability. I continued to eat, watching the Shorn Woman the entire time while she smiled through guests throwing up their drunken congratulations all over the stage, willing her to look my way, until she finally did.
After dinner, I softened into the quiet darkness of the shamiana to wash my hands, holding my wrists under cool water, a premonition. Then my phone, blinking with a message from her.
Where are you?
I fishhook my thumbs into the waistband of my skirt and pulled it below the scars on my abdomen, hypertrophic lines aglow from the kerosene lamps that burned hot and blue throughout the church, a map slip-stitching around my ankles, the seam between my jawline and ear, a serration buttoning me into the present. இங்க தான் இருக்கேன், I mouthed at the screen as I walked back to the stage. I never left.