The Girl Who Smelled of Rum

Posted on June 9, 2009


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SHE ASKED ME WHAT MY FAVOURITE SWEET WAS and I said groundnut balls and she wouldn’t stop laughing for five minutes. She’d sober up, her moonface reflecting the resolve to leave my feelings unhurt, then she’d make the anatomical connection and begin to laugh again. I told her she didn’t speak my language and that’s why I had to resort to an English translation. She apologised, and she laughed for the last time that day. I let her. I enjoyed watching her laugh. It was more of a squeaky giggle, really, a mousy explosion of fits and starts and shaking, jiggling shoulders. When the spasms finally stopped, she rested her face against the crook of her arm. She appeared to be contemplating the sun sinking into the sea. I reached out and brushed her back free of the sand kicked up by a child who’d sped past us, chasing his diamantine kite.

When we got home, she brushed her feet hard against the mat and tiptoed across the hall as if pretending to be a ballerina would somehow stop the wet sand from dislodging itself from the folds of her skirt and making dirty patterns against the creamy mosaic. I followed her, dry as bone, not having had the inclination to immerse my feet in a foamy, frothy mix of distant sailors’ vomit and the mysterious body fluids of unknown fish. This, according to her, was my problem. I was too South Indian. I thought too much. I couldn’t just be. I couldn’t just run into the ocean like the rest of the world and feel the waves creep up on me and squiggle my toes in the squelchy mud. That was my problem. As I opened the carelessly shut bathroom door, she was bent over, rinsing out her skirt.

I brought my arms around her from behind and closed my eyes, my body obediently replicating the curve of hers as she continued her chore as if nothing had happened. Somewhere far away, I heard the water being turned off. With that squeaky giggle in her voice again, she asked me if I intended to allow her to straighten up. I shook my head and muffled my reply as the nub of my shapeless nose traced spongy lines across her back. She squealed and said it tickled and if I was going to get all moony, we should at least get into bed. We did. A little later, while I was catching my breath over her, still hoisted on my palms, she drew a map on her chest and murmured that that would be my territory forever because I’d marked it with spit and semen. I wanted to know what about the rest. She said I’d have to wait. If I was serious about her, about us, I’d have a lifetime to fully own her. She wasn’t about to surrender her entirety to someone she’d known for barely a month.

I rolled to a side and wondered why I was always the unknown in her formulations of eternity. She could have doubts too. She could be the one to walk away, perhaps with someone from her part of the country, someone tall and fair and muscled beyond belief, who might actually stand beside her and hold her hand and laugh heroically into the wind as they stood amidst the waves, instead of obsessing if his rapidly shriveling feet were being bathed in plankton juice. But she never doubted, not for an instant, her investment in us. Somewhere in her mercifully underanalytical mind, she knew we had a future and that if we took it a day at a time, they’d add up to infinity. She just felt these things, the way she felt the hair on my chest now as she lifted her head and said the man she’d been with earlier had been far more hirsute and somewhat better endowed. She said these things without a smidgen of self-consciousness, as if appraising melons in the market whose sweetness mattered more than size.

That was how I knew I was falling in love, when she said something about the cuteness of my cauliflower ears. The first time we met, one blistering afternoon in a mall with no air-conditioning, I was overpowered by the scent of rum and it came from her. Sensing that I’d be too polite to bring up the subject, she cleared the air. She laughed and asked me not to worry because she was not one of those bored women with a silver hip flask. Then, in a conspiratorial whisper, she informed me that she did enjoy her drink, and that when she had one drink too many, the smell never left her for days. There, with that declaration, she was already the most exotic creature I’d ever met. I motioned my friend aside and implored him to leave. I had little doubt that, wise and knowing creature of the world that she was, she knew better than to believe my friend’s mumbled apologies about an emergency, but she played her part brightly and with utter sincerity and by the end, the two of us were walking to her house with her shopping bags.

She’d been in the neighbourhood for two months and I’d never known. But she had seen me around. While reading a book on her terrace in the evening or while pacing up and down in futile attempts to evade the walking traffic on the roads by the beach, she’d seen me with a skinny girl with a pinched face. She noted, without embarrassment, that we always seemed to be arguing. The next thing I knew, I was talking about my breakup, and the one before, shameful secrets close to my chest that I’d shared only with my childhood buddy I’d packed home so unceremoniously that afternoon. But she was like that. She was a big, roomy girl who inspired trust. If I’d been a Freudian, I’d have suspected it had something to do with that maternal bosom. I must confess that was an added attraction and she told me later, after we’d gotten together, that that was the first time she’d seen someone look so shyly at her breasts. She said that made her feel comforted, and by then, I knew her well enough to not be mortified that I’d been found out.

Copyright ©2009 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Fiction