Romance

How to Name and Claim Romance

In Short Story by Karen Bell

“Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.” E.M. Forster Passage to India
1. Know yourself and what you have to offer

“Time for you to grow some Indian wings.”
You crack open an eye to squint against the Bangalore sun and up into the face of your older friend, Radhika.
“I’m pushing you out of the nest.” Radhika has an eyebrow cocked and a hand on her hip.
You love and hate each other like sisters and have the welts to prove it. After four months of intensive travel across India, you are both tired of looking at each other.
You sit up in the lawn chair and lean on an elbow. Grinning, you ask, “Is it because I keep distracting you from studying?”
“No. Maybe.”
Among your other idiosyncrasies, you suspect Radhika is kicking you out because you were a shameless flirt at her cousin’s wedding.
Radhika takes a seat in a lawn chair and uses her fingers to comb your frizzy hair. You lean back and close your eyes.
She speaks softly, “You don’t want to stay in this apartment for your entire gap year. Don’t foreigners come here for self-discovery?”
“Fair enough. And I’m desperate for a romance without you third-wheeling it.”
“All of India knows you’re desperate.” She gives your hair a sharp yank. “I should ask my mother to find a nice boy for you.”
“I’m not going to limit my range of human experience to one person. I’ll get married to a random guy when you do.”
After receiving a brief lecture in the history of U.S. divorce rates, you drag your slovenly self off the patio of your bourgeois Indian friend. You kiss luxuries, hot showers and the espresso machine, goodbye. Equipped with a bottle of hand-sanitizer, a bag of Keralan banana chips, and a copy of the Kama Sutra, you book an overnight train to a hill station in the mountains of Andhra Pradesh. The Borra Caves, you hear, are exceptional.
In the back of an auto rickshaw on the way to the train station, Radhika says, “I’m suddenly rethinking this.”
You laugh. “Why are you so maternal? You’re only two years older.”
Radhika tsks. “All of your money will be gone within the day, and your pale face will show up on the evening news. Or you’ll again end up in a bed with some boy who wants a Western sugar…”
“That never happened!” You flick her in the ear.
Radhika pinches you purple. “I should get you a box of condoms.”
“Golly, you’re such a prude.” Your best-kept secret is that you’re as inexperienced as she is.
You open your umbrella against the evening monsoon as you both hop out of the auto and into the main entrance of the train station, which is crowded with travelers waiting for a general compartment seat. You link an index finger with Radhika and weave around people and puddles, your flip-flops flicking water up the backs of your legs. Many of the older women are dressed formally for travel, with gold bangles around their rotund wrists and perfectly pleated silk saris wrapped around their waists. You feel a bit shabby in harem pants and a long loose kurta, a blue blouse to the knees.
Radhika walks onto the train and finds your cabin. She frames your face with both hands. “Don’t waste any rupees on cute musicians this time. Only give to the disfigured or old. And don’t start shaking hands or letting guys take photos of you.”
You do tend to attract attention. Despite your love for India, you couldn’t blend in if you wanted to. In Radhika’s words, you wear Americanness like a flag. When she’s with you, your ginger hair, freckles, and wide smile add “tourist tax” to everything, from coffee to cab fare.
You take your friend’s hands and say, “Shush, I’ll do what I want. Who’s meeting me at the platform in the morning?”
Radhika shrugs. “What are these doubts you have? He owns a resort with treehouses. It’s all arranged through Couchsurfing. The toilet and bed are free.”
“You haven’t met him?”
“Relax. Don’t miss your stop, or you’ll end up in Calcutta.”
You embrace her with a vertebrae popping hug and give her a kiss on the lips goodbye.
“I do love you,” she says. “And I’ll love you even more from a distance.”
You feel a little sick as she turns and gets down from the train.

2. Reach out and meet new people.

In the morning, saliva smeared and sleepy, you roll and trundle to the lower bunk where your cabin neighbors are enjoying breakfast. They open layered tiffin boxes and offer you steaming idli, rice cakes, and sambar, earth-toned lentil stew. Head wobbles and smiles are exchanged in lieu of a common language. You order them small cups of south Indian coffee, a creamy blend of milk and chicory, from a passing vendor. You want to check your phone for messages from Radhika, but you stop yourself. She has to study, you think. Leave her alone. Give her some space.
When the train slows to your stop, a young man on the platform is holding a sign with your name. He wears striped trousers, a scarf around his neck, and sleeves rolled to his elbows to show off a Rolex watch. You think he looks like a languid dandy, sharp and trim with bored beauty. You feel comparatively like a rock troll, but take a deep breath and offer your only Telugu in cheerful greeting, “Namaskaram. Meeru aelaa unnaaru?” You grab his hand in a firm shake.
“Super,” he answers. “I’m Sandeep.” His family runs the resort.
He carries your rucksack, and you climb into his jeep for a shuddering ride around twisting country roads and through layers of breaking mist. You chatter about your travels at a speed and in a regional accent Sandeep doesn’t seem to understand. You casually put a hand on his knee. He jerks away with wide eyes.
“You’re not a morning person, are you?” You shout at him.
He gives you a side look. “What did you say, ma’am?”
He drives under the gaudy archway of the resort and takes you to a lime green treehouse settled several feet off the ground. Up the steps you climb to a room overlooking the drenched botanic gardens. The boards of the listing treehouse creak. Sandeep shows you the bath, two-bucket method, and how to use the television. You take your phone out of your pocket and put it under one of the pillows on the bed.
“If you want hot water,” he gestures towards an electric rod, “simply plug in here at the outlet and leave in the bucket for five to ten minutes.”
“That could end badly,” you say.
He turns the ceiling fan on and off, but the power is out. “It will be back. No problem. Any doubts?” His eyes flicker over your sweat stains and frizzled hair.
On an impulse you ask, “Have coffee with me?”
He narrows his eyes and then wobbles his head, okay, yes. It hadn’t occurred to you that he might say no. As a foreigner, you are propositioned by random boys on a regular basis. Hooking up with a white girl seems to carry as much magic as finding a unicorn in the woods.
Sandeep seems cautiously curious. He has other duties to tend to, but instead, he makes you a cup of coffee ground from local beans. Then he sits next to you on the balcony swing and, with your permission, rolls a cigarette. While he asks the usual introductory questions about marital status and income, he stretches his long legs and rests his pedicured feet on the railing.
He says, “I hope you will not be bored here. This is a very still place.”
“I’ll probably go hiking,” you say.
“On foot? For fun?” He wobbles his head yes, but, “no, that would be strenuous work.”
“I’ll be fine.”
He looks at you doubtfully.

3. Take risks

After you two have a restrained discussion about the physical capacities of women, Sandeep offers to lend you a motorcycle.
He is beautiful, so you say, “Only if you come with me.”
You leave your phone behind. Sandeep sits on the back of the bike and avoids touching you as you speed past the local coffee plantation, hitting every pothole. The trees clear for overlooks of unfolding innumerable mountain peaks draped in dark blue clouds. You slow for a look and guide his hands to your waist.
When you drive through the village, the street vendors know Sandeep; they call him sir and offer samples. Sandeep feeds you aloo tikki, fried potato croquette flavored with garam masala and mango, and then demonstrates how to eat spicy pani puri in one mouth bursting bite.
As the sun crawls towards midday, you feel smothered by heavy humid green. Sweat collects in every crevice of your skin.
He wipes the perspiration from your forehead with a finger and says, “You’re red. Let’s shift out of the sun.”
You head to Borra Caves and join a queue of families descending stone stairs into the cool black caverns.
The guide is saying, “No teasing the monkeys, please.”
Sandeep doesn’t flinch when you take his hand. He points out the Lord Shiva’s stalagmite shrine showered with flowers and candle wax. You can imagine why people find God in the cathedral vastness of these hollows under the earth.
You feel brave in the dark. Sandeep’s describing the Paleolithic people who used to live here. You wait for the other tourists to pass. Then you catch Sandeep mid-anecdote, miss his lips, and accidentally knock your teeth against his. He pulls back with a hand on his pouty mouth. You both curse.
Like a fart in church, you think, flushing under your fresh sunburn. But you have to prove to yourself that you can successfully seduce a moderately beautiful young man. You can’t give up now. So you grab his neck and pull him close. He doesn’t resist. After that tug of encouragement he becomes a suction cup to your face with a tongue that pokes into the corners of your mouth like the sterilized finger of a dentist.

4. Be vulnerable & remember that intimacy takes many forms

Back in the sun you both act as if nothing happened. He has stuff to do, he explains, so he drops you off at the resort. But he returns in the evening with bowls of bamboo chicken and several bottles of rum. You drink and eat and look at the sunset in silence. Your phone is still twenty-four hours-untouched under a pillow.
Don’t think about her, you tell yourself, swallowing and swallowing undiluted rum until the burn in your throat fades. You have to go through with this. You’re practically old already, and you’ve never finished the act. You’ve been passing for straight, even letting Radhika think you pass for “slutty.” But now you have a chance to take the plunge.
You imagine how this will go. He will take you in his arms for an unforgettable lesson in the Kama Sutra until English fails, and you’re left with the ends of words, with gasps of pleasure.
“I’ve never done this before.” He interrupts your fantasy. He is standing in your room with arms folded. “Western girls have much more experience.”
“Yeah.” You nod slowly and wonder how long you can pull off non-existent sexual prowess. But the alcohol is working. With a rush of confidence, you take his hand.
Sloshed and raw, you lumber on top of each other with all the romance and clumsy contact of the undead. He tries to unzip your trousers, but the zip gets stuck. Your bra, with its hooks and straps, also proves complicated. You are soon helpless with laughter. You cackle until your head detaches from your body and gets lost in the mosquito netting over the bed. You both lose equilibrium; the ancient mattress swallows you whole while he stretches his wiry frame over you. His tongue is rum and ginger and cigarettes. With a growing sense of boredom, you look off into a corner of the ceiling and wonder how long this will take.
The power goes off, and in seconds the air is thick. Under Sandeep’s weight, heft, and hair, under his suddenly sweating sticking skin and sloppy lips, you feel claustrophobic. In the dark, you flip him for top position and straddle his waist. He succumbs to exploration as you caress his face and unbutton his linen shirt. You hold his hands above his head, lace fingers with his, and balance in-between his legs, sex on sex. Minutes pass as you try to navigate his firm mouth and box body. Under the weight of your pelvis, he is soft and sedated. No passion under pressure. And all you can imagine is the last person you kissed, Radhika.
He is having trouble keeping his eyes open.
You ruffle his thick feathered hair and whisper, “Wow, you are as pissed as a newt.”
“I was nervous,” he mumbles. “I even shaved my back for you.”
You laugh into his shoulder and say, “You lightweight buttercup.” With a sigh of relief you realize you won’t be giving away your heterosexual virginity tonight. As you dismount, his eyes seal shut.
He stretches and murmurs, “Give me a minute. I’ll be ready in a minute.”
You change clothes, brush mossy teeth, and wait. When his snores deepen, you give him a chaste kiss goodbye on the forehead.

5. Learn from your mistakes

In fresh harem pants and a red kurta, you sling your rucksack over your shoulder, leave the key on the dresser, and climb over the wall of the resort. At 4:30 am the light is new, the morning quiet before tour guides or auto drivers wake.
You finally break suspense and turn on your phone to find several texts from Radhika. After returning her messages, she calls you back almost immediately, furious and barely awake.
“Where have you been?” she asks.
“I met someone.”
“Of course.” She clicks her tongue. “Did you break his heart?”
“No, we didn’t have any chemistry.” You pause then take a different kind of plunge. “I don’t think I fancy guys.”
“Idiot. You finally figured it out.”
“What?”
“Will you stop playing with all these boys now?” she scolds you. “Did you get fake heterosexuality out of your system?”
“How long have you known?”
“Shut up and come home. I’ve been missing you like crazy.”
You breathe deep in the spreading sun, and stretch new fingers and new limbs in the light.

About the Author

Karen Bell

I’m a graduate of Edinburgh University’s creative writing program and have spent time in India as an ESL teacher. I currently teach composition and creative writing for a branch campus of the University of Pittsburgh. My work has appeared in the literary journal River River and the Scottish online magazine The Grind.