I released his hand. We walked past a Barnes and Noble bookstore and had to cross a traffic signal. He used it as an excuse to hold my hand. We crossed the road together. He didn’t release my hand afterwards.
I gave him a sideways glance. He smiled at me.
‘My sister is considered the prettier one, actually,’ I said.
‘I find that quite hard to believe. Unless she is Miss Universe or something.’
I smiled at his indirect compliment. I felt like running my fingers through his curly hair.
He continued, ‘Actually, even if she is Miss Universe. I find you really pretty.’
Sweet lies, they do have a place in life. I sighed.
‘Thanks, Debu,’ I said.
We reached the Benjamin Hotel. We had made some progress. We had held hands, but only that. Did I intimidate him? Did he totally lie but actually not find me attractive? Is he scared?
‘So this is where I live. Train stop is right there.’ I pointed at the subway sign.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I had a great time. Thanks for the treat.’
‘You are welcome,’ I said. ‘Bye.’
My heart sank a bit. I didn’t want him to go.
‘Hey, just one thing. Doesn’t have to be today,’ he said.
‘Yeah?’ I said.
‘You have your sister’s photo in your room? Wanted to check. I am sure the claim that she is prettier is false,’ he said.
Was that a move? He mentioned my room. Did he want to come upstairs? Or he could technically want me to go up and bring down some pictures. Heck, I had Aditi didi’s photos on my phone. So is this a move? Will someone tell me, please?
I smiled at him.
‘No, really,’ Debu said,
‘That’s sweet. So are you.’
I laughed. ‘No. Handsome. Smart. Creative too.’
‘Thanks,’ he said.
‘Okay, I think I have some photos on my laptop upstairs. You want to come up?’ I said.
‘No way,’ Debu said. ‘She is not prettier than you.’
‘Oh, come on,’ I said. ‘Aditi didi is so nice-looking.’
‘Listen, sure she is, but not more than you. No way. You have better features.’
‘That’s not what my mother led me to believe,’ I said.
‘Must be the Punjabi thing. The whiter the skin, the prettier the person. Nonsense,’ he said, somewhat agitated.
We sat on the edge of the hotel bed, my laptop in the middle. I had a two-year-old family album open on the screen.
‘All my life I have been this nerdy, studious girl. Aditi didi is considered the looker.’
‘Sorry, she’s your sister, but she dresses like she is going to a party even for random family pictures at home.’
‘She is like that,’ I said.
‘You did wear horrible glasses though,’ Debu said.
‘I switched to contacts a year ago,’ I said, and pointed to a picture of my family in our living room. ‘That is dad. Simple, quiet man. Just doesn’t want people in society to say anything critical of him. This is my mother. Dominates dad totally.’
Debu examined the pictures as I spoke again.
‘I miss home,’ I said. ‘Seeing these pictures I miss India. I want to watch TV serials with my mother and do nothing.’
‘Says the new hotshot distressed debt banker. Too late, girl.’ Debu laughed.
I made a mock-sad face.
I need a hug. Move things forward, Debu. Do I have to give you an instruction manual?
‘It’s a sweet family,’ Debu said.
‘It is,’ I said. I wanted to stall the conversation with short, boring replies. Awkward silences lead to many interesting things.
Unfortunately, certain intellectual Bengali men don’t often get the hint.
‘Have you read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf?’ Debu said.
‘No, what’s that?’
‘A landmark feminist book. It talks about how women are culturally bullied into feeling conscious about their looks all the time,’ he said.
‘Really? Well, to a certain extent it’s true,’ I said.
‘Yeah. Do men compare their physicality with their siblings so much?’
‘I guess not.’ At another time or place, like at one of our Friday dinners, I would have liked to engage in this intellectually stimulating conversation. Not now. I had other things on my mind.
‘Exactly,’ he said, ‘she says it is a way for men to control women and. . .’
‘My feet are killing me,’ I interrupted him. I removed my shoes. I brought my feet up on the bed. My short dress inched up a little further on my thighs. Debu forgot his chain of thought. I guess there are ways for women to control men too.
‘Sorry, what were you saying?’ I said. I squeezed and released my toes.
‘Huh?’ he said. ‘Nothing. I will give you the book.’
‘Not used to walking long distances in heels,’ I said.
‘Do you want me to give you a foot massage?’ he said.
And the Republic Day bravery award finally goes to Debashish Sen, I wanted to announce.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘You know how to?’
It was one of those stupid things girls sometimes say. We know it is stupid but we say it anyway to act naïve or whatever.
I loved his hands on my feet.
‘Wow, that’s nice,’ I said. He pressed my feet timidly, as if I would get up and slap him any second.
He massaged my shins. His hands slowly moved up to my knees. I didn’t stop him.
‘Do you have lotion?’ he said. I pointed to the bedside table. He took a bottle of moisturizer and splashed it on my feet. I jerked as the cold lotion touched my skin. He put his warm hands on my legs. He moved them in a sliding motion from shin to knee.
I closed my eyes. I could feel his hands reach above my knees. Nobody had ever touched me there before, unless you count the waxing torture-chamber lady. Tingles of pleasure ran up my thighs.
He became bolder every minute, going higher. We didn’t exchange a word. He reached the hem of my dress. His fingers danced tantalizingly upon my thighs.
Is this all moving too fast? a voice within me said. Heck, I didn’t care.
‘Is this okay?’ Debu said.
I nodded. I opened my eyes. I signalled him to bring his face closer to mine. He leaned forward. Our lips met. I kissed for the first time in my life.