The rolled paper burned, steady in his hand.
The heat and the smoke clawing through his lungs felt oddly comforting.
Outside, the music throbbed relentlessly as if to bring down the bathroom door. The tungsten filament in his hideout flickered weakly, and weaker still; seemingly all life, not just his, wanted to escape this hot box.
Oh, he knew. Of course, he knew.
This wasn’t healthy. He didn’t need telling. But, he needed something to take the edge off nights like this. At least, that’s what he liked to tell himself.
Smoke gushed out of the bathroom door when he eventually emerged. The music invaded what little space it couldn’t reach till now, and the smoke put up what resistance it could; but steadily lost ground and air in that order.
He opened the door to the hallway to find the party in full swing.
Multi-coloured lights washed across the hallway, interpreting the night in their own tinted luminosity. Teeth bared, limbs in limbo, illuminated in acid-green and fuck-pink – the youth of the city’s elite raved.
Faces he recognized flashed in and out of sight, but he avoided any interaction. The dull waves of tonight’s high were washing slowly over him.
Cologne wafted into the air; each scent pleasant enough on its own, until it met with and mingled with others. Somewhere in the fight for the top note, becoming an unbearable stench.
He needed a way out.
The front door swung open just as he reached it, the edge missing him by inches and bringing him to a standstill in the process.
His first thought – nice shoes. He looked up.
His second thought – she was beautiful.
Even in her half-foot stilettoes, she only came up to his shoulder. Burnt brown eyes, threatening to be some other colour entirely, painted lips and the smell of her. Oh, the smell of her.
It was unmistakable. In a room reeking of sweat, smoke and raging hormones, she smelled unmistakably clean.
“Fuck! Watch where you’re going, you fucking asshole!”
Her voice pierced through both the loud music and his impression of grace.
He should’ve known better than to gravitate towards things he liked and thought splendid. As a rule of thumb, such things never liked him back.
He didn’t stay to apologise, nor take account of the damage. Instead, he mumbled over his shoulder and veered off, climbing up a flight of stairs to reach the safety of the rooftop.
Something about the black lace of her dress lingered in his mind. He could in that moment recall the way her skin protested the fabric straps cutting into it at the shoulders, but then seemed to revel in its snug embrace at her hips. And a moment later – as suddenly as she was, she suddenly wasn’t, in his mind.
Fresh air. He gasped in his urgency to breathe in volumes of it. Funny how in a room laced with the promise of fitting in, it’s hard to know that you’re suffocating.
There were more people than he liked outside. He reached halfway into his pocket for another smoke, but then decided against it.
3:35 AM: too early to hope for a ride back home, too late to walk back alone. He instinctively took a look at the city around him. At this height – forty luxury residential apartment floors closer to heaven, he had a God’s eye view of Colombo.
In the distance, down below under a fluorescent street-light was a woman nursing her infant, feet spread out under her. Other men and women in orange uniforms were starting to sweep the roads, collecting the trash into their matching orange handcarts, but first examining anything that seemed even remotely usable.
Colombo was a bipolar city. No diagnosis could suit it better.
By day, the city swarmed with masses of people, all in battle with the same elements: the harsh equatorial sun, the dust, the grime, the politics sucking the soil dry, widespread racism, even as everyone made a pretence of harmony.
But by night, the city transformed.
Scattered across Colombo, a few looming structures burned the midnight oil. Like beacons, offering a privileged minority the illusion of safety.
They gathered at their brightly-lit safe-houses where wealth, good fortune and social standing gave rise to, in no particular order: four hundred per cent taxed sports cars, bought at three hundred and eighty per cent bribes; gang fights; the occasional contract killing; prostitution and cocaine.
Ironies were in no short order around here.
“Yo, homo, you got a light?”
Coming outside may have been a mistake, he thought to himself, wryly.
“Didn’t you hear me, you fag?”
Giving up, he reached into his pocket. “I’m not…” he tried to say, but the words caught in his throat as if protesting protest.
“Not what, bitch?”
He stayed silent, reaching his hand out with lighter in palm. He heard it click as the voice walked away. He didn’t need to turn to see who it was, he knew. He could hear snickering from the distance, suddenly, the music wasn’t loud enough.
He rose from the seat slowly, reaching into his pocket. Now. He needed another one now.
The walk back to the safety of the bathroom was comforting. He craved the warmth of burning paper in his hand and its smoky embrace. It was as if the hallway had frozen in time, along with its occupants, now reeking more of sweat and sex than cologne. Now with a different track on repeat.
At long last, the hallway was behind him and his smoky safety ahead. Instinct stopped him, with his hand on the door. He could hear voices from the other side. It almost sounded as if they were screams.
With what was the most delicate gesture he could muster in his inebriation, he twisted the handle. With an unintended click, the lock jumped and the door gave way, swinging on its silent hinges.
The room stayed dark, lost in the shadows. His eyes, violated by the streaks of colour from the hallway, spent time adjusting to the darkness, but his ears were more readily tuned in.
The screams from the room were not difficult to make out now. His eyes playing catch up, could now see the dim outlines of two bodies sprawled, one on top of the other in bed. Like a lit candle and its flame, he couldn’t quite make out where one ended and the other began.
The screams, which he now realized were of a different nature than he first assumed flowed continuously – muffled and urgent.
The light from the hallway crept into the room, falling just short of the bed itself, prompting him to close the door as delicately as he had opened it.
Just before the door clicked shut, he caught on the floor, lying next to a pack of cigarettes, a lace dress; soft black, almost indistinguishable against the darkness of the room.
“That’s just fucking great,” he murmured to himself, mentally accounting for the time he would need to spare them for the dirty deed. “I can’t be sitting here waiting for them to come out,” again to himself. “Fuck this.”
He wasn’t sure what it was, but something about this upset him more than an occupied room without a “We Are Fucking” sign should.
He walked away from the door aimlessly, unable to decide where to find solace now, scanning the hallway, now ironically looking for a known face. Misery truly does love company.
This night was turning out more terribly than he had imagined it would. Maybe it was time to give up this charade. It didn’t seem to work in his favour, no matter how much effort he put into fitting in. He should have stayed home.
What little alcohol remained in the dying parts of night was stacked in the pantry. He never was a drinker. The taste of it made him feel sick to his stomach. He seated himself in the corner farthest from the others.
Reaching into his pocket, he fished out his cigarettes, and then stopped. The lighter. The black Bic lighter he nicked from his mom’s table. He gave it away earlier. He looked around, half hoping to find one lying around. He knew, though he pretended not to who it was that he gave his to, but there was no call to go asking for it, his mother wouldn’t be any wiser, she never knew where anything was.
He knew Dev from class. One of the better known kids from school. Born into good fortune, Dev never took kindly to anyone. He was the face of the bully’s confederation.
Around here, as he imagined it was in the wildest parts of the Savannah, conquering the weak, was the one way that the strong survived. It made a kind of terrible sense to him.
In the wild, deer had no fighting chance against the wolves that hunted them down. Deer had no equality or rights; then why should high school students have them? Or black lives, or fat people, or puppies? Or women even?
It seemed as if we believed that humans were somehow more evolved and above the savagery of the jungle; when we clearly were not.
Sitting there, he admitted to himself that what worried him most was how, given a chance, he knew he would be just like Dev. The world seemed a better place from Dev’s perspective, speeding down life’s highway in a fancy car.
The sound of ice clinking loudly against the glass of the high bowl, brought him back. He was no longer alone in the pantry. Dev stood there pouring himself a drink from a blue bottle.
All at once, something came over him. Courage? Perhaps. Desperation, most likely.
“I want my lighter back!”
“I don’t have it,” Dev responded, casually, without even turning around. There seemed nowhere to go from there.
But then, just as his anger was subsiding, Dev remarked offhandedly – “Couldn’t find another homo to shag?”
Something snapped, and he charged at Dev. A cowardly move in retrospect, given that Dev had his back to him, yet requiring more courage than he had worked up in years.
The element of surprise was short-lived. Dev was pushed forward, glass in hand, but recovered quickly enough to immediately turn and smash the glass on the side of his head, just under the temple. He heard the glass shatter against bone, before a fist caught him squarely on the jaw; his head whiplashed as pain spread through him. Legs buckling under him, he tried to aim a punch, but was caught across the face again.
In the distance, he heard Dev launching a verbal assault as ferocious as the physical one. The last of many punches caught him on the nose, just as his legs gave away and landed him facedown, against the cold concrete. He felt Dev kick him one final time and then walk away, new glass in hand.
The metallic aftertaste of flowing blood filled his mouth. Pain crawled across his face and throbbed against his skull. He wished more so than ever that he could be in anyone’s skin but his own. If only, somehow he could throw a punch the way Dev could. It must surely be ironic to wish to be your own antagonist.
“We need a man around the house. I can’t do everything by myself,” he could hear his mother’s voice in his head. “We need a man around the house.”
He waited for the snickering and feet to leave the pantry before gingerly rising to his feet. The pain shot across his head. Dried blood clung desperately to his face. He made the walk back to the bathroom, he needed a place to be alone.
As he cut across the dance floor, eyes turned in his direction. His face could not be in good form if he was attracting this much attention. On the bright side, Dev was nowhere in sight, he wasn’t sure if another bout would be to his benefit.
He imagined Dev and his friends were cutting lines in the washroom, on the ceramic washbowl. He knew they did, because he had seen the leftover powder. A gram of that stuff cost anywhere from fifteen to eighteen thousand rupees, an ironic number considering the local minimum monthly wage hinged somewhere in the same range.
For twenty one thousand you would get the kind that wasn’t cut with crushed Panadol, or Piriton if you were lucky. The laced powder gave nosebleeds. He knew because he had, once or twice, snorted what was left over on the washbowl. The leftovers were always the cheaper variety.
The walk seemed to take forever till finally he was at the door, now left ajar. He stepped through it into the waiting darkness, feeling the calm envelope him as he pulled it shut, the chaos of his times ran and rang wildly behind him. The little strength he had remaining left him in one, long drawn sigh of anxious relief, as he sunk first to his knees and then to his back, groaning under his breath.
The voice startled him only because it came from the darkness. Her voice was a lot more welcoming of his company than it had been the one other time he heard it tonight.
“I thought you had left,” he replied without thinking.
“You were here before?” Something in her voice seemed more indignant than he imagined she would be if found in bed with the night’s flavour.
“The door wasn’t locked. I didn’t see anything.”
“Hmmm, I suppose you couldn’t have,” she responded dryly.
“Lock the door next time.”
She stayed silent. He didn’t need to offend the only company his misery could afford.
“I mean, I would if I were him,” he followed.
She continued to stay silent.
When his eyes slowly accustomed themselves to the dark, he could make her out at the foot of the bed, leaning against its footboard, in an exaggerated foetal position.
“I’m Yannik. What’s your name?”
“You know my name.”
“Of course you do. And, I know yours, Yannik.”
“Just stop pretending, man. In this fucking shit-hole, everybody knows everyone.” The finality in her voice cut his sentence short.
“Is it Lashini?”
“Dude, seriously? Cut the crap, Yann.”
Only his mother ever called him that. At those rare times when she wasn’t using a more offensive term of endearment.
This woman, crouched with her back to her own sin, spoke it as if she had done just that all her life. Her voice was perplexingly comforting.
“I need a smoke. Would you mind?”
He reached in to his pocket for the now crumpled smoke and then remembered he had no lighter.
“I need to find a light.”
“Here,” she said tossing it in his general direction. It landed on the floor near him with a familiar clang and click. He fiddled with it a few times before finally succeeding in striking it up. The blue-tinged flame burned brightly in the darkness. As it flickered, he recognized the Bic logo and the black cylinder of his mother’s lighter.
The cigarette lit up in his hand. The heat was oddly unsettling. The smoke clawing its way through his lungs did little to put him at ease.
“Pass,” she whispered.
He leaned forward to hand it to her, along with the lighter. The crumpled paper, which was burning unevenly, gave out at that moment.
She clicked the lighter dangerously close to her face, illuminating her pale skin.
In the light, he could now clearly make out her swollen lips and blackened eye. Bruises stood out on her otherwise flawless complexion. The lace of her dress was torn at the seams, hanging loose on the delicate structure of her skin, stretched taut over the bones of bad habit.
“Hey, are you okay?”
But he already had his answer. Her ripped dress exposed more bruises than skin, her wrists bangled by prints of restraining fingers and dug-in nails.
In the dying light of burning paper and leaf, the full tragedy of a woman in a man’s world stared back unapologetically.
But, then again, what did he know about being a man?
He kept looking as his mind wandered, wondering how it must feel man. To take with such little consideration and give nothing in return. To hold power over things not meant for him and play God in His absence.
And, he felt then as if he had finally understood the border he was truly at.
“Do you want a drink?” he offered.
She seemed surprised.
He left the room to find that the night had wound itself to a slow death. The few attendees who still remained lay motionless where they had fallen.
He poured himself a drink from the blue bottle, and then measured a larger second. He made his way back to the room, poison in hand.
He walked up to the door, took a deep breath, put his hand on the handle and twisted.
There was no click. It seemed that this time, the door was locked.