Tina stood at the kitchen counter, eyes fixed on the half-wilted arrowhead vine that her friend, Ayona, had brought with her when she’d moved in. It sat unattended on the living room table straight ahead. Tina was still, knife in one hand, its tip resting on the chopping board. It was a good thing that Ayona was a woman. She would never have been able to help a male friend this way without being paired off with him romantically by literally everyone she knew.
So, it was good that Ayona was a woman. To everybody, they could only be just friends, and that gave them their own private space: no prying eyes. But private spaces can get claustrophobic if you’re too close to each other, or too distant. Which one was it with Ayona? They hadn’t interacted much since she’d moved in. Tina sighed. The vine needed watering. There was always such a long list of chores on Sundays. It was tiresome. Today it was laundry, vacuuming, and ironing. Then at the supermarket: bread, crisps, milk, florets, cucumber, and “Oh, the ginger!” slipped from her lips in a whisper. She quickly began to chop the ginger once again, humming a tune.
“Hey!” Ayona said bursting in through the swing door of the kitchen, mug in one hand, key in the other twirling to the beat of her almost skipping feet. “Whatchya cookin’,” she asked in a singsong voice, leaning on the kitchen counter beside Tina.
“Uhh… just potatoes and aubergines,” Tina replied, smiling up at her.
“Eww! Who eats aubergines?!”
Tina clenched her jaw and tightened her grip on the knife so she could keep her voice steady. “Did you sleep well?”
“The sound of the vacuum cleaner was a good lullaby.”
Tina couldn’t help letting out a chuckle under her breath. This was something they’d bickered over for all their time together at university. Tina had to sit alone in the morning classes because Ayona never managed to wake up before noon. “So, what’s your plan for lunch?” Tina asked, composing herself.
“Pizza left over from last night, I guess,” Ayona replied and began to whistle a song. Her eyes were closed and her head tilted to a narrow opening in the window as though she were listening to music drifting in from there. Her mug foamed with an excess of washing up liquid. Tina watched, getting restless by the second, ghosts of goosebumps popping up all over her body. She couldn’t take her eyes off the mug. She found that she had to force herself to care about the things she usually would’ve: that the mug should’ve been washed by now; wastage of water; the mug could slip and fall and crack. In a daze, she followed Ayona’s hands around the mug; Ayona was beautiful, at peace, serene, soothing…
The ginger lay on the cutting board, partly cut to discs and partly julienne, the knife in Tina’s hand suspended at an awkward angle.
“I have to finish a five-hundred-page novel by today. Two hundred pages to go, and then I’ve to write my response to it,” Ayona said, suddenly turning to Tina, startling her and tethering her to a steady gaze, her long eyelashes floating down to her cheeks twice every second. “I actually have to get work done now. Masters is tiring. Good that you jumped to a job.”
Tina looked down and continued to chop the ginger. “I’m not doing your assignments for you if that’s what you’re getting at. These aren’t undergrad days anymore.” Still incorrigibly lazy! One might have thought that a year living on her own would’ve changed her. But it had been a week since she moved in and she hadn’t even done her own chores, let alone help others. “Oh, and I took down the timetable you put up on the wall of your room. Landlord’s policy. I’ll have to pay for any damage to the paint.” She looked up at Ayona who now stood beside her, tossing a lime from one hand to another, surveying her with an amused half-smile. “I’m just saying, you know, I don’t want any trouble with the Landlord,” Tina continued. She was unconsciously waving her hands about without having put down the knife. And unbeknownst to her, they were getting sweaty. Her ears felt hotter. “Umm… my job doesn’t pay too much and you’re not paying any rent. I mean, not that you have to pay anything. You’re my guest and you’ll find another place soon. It wasn’t fair of your Landlord to have evicted you like that without notice. But, you know, just don’t do the damage in the first place. I mean, I don’t mean – ”
“That’s too much ginger.”
Ayona moved a step closer and bent down over the cutting board. “That’s a lot of ginger,” she said, turning to Tina.
Tina took a deep breath. Ayona always smelled of freshly baked apple pie when she came too close. Her wet brown locks dripped into the bowl of aubergines.
Maybe it was a mistake to let Ayona move in. “I like excess ginger,” Tina replied, with a frown. How could she even be attracted to the person who annoyed her the most? She finished chopping the ginger in a hurry, transferred them to the bowl and began to cut the chilli. She could feel Ayona’s stare cooking the aubergines.
Tina’s knife kept coming down on the same mark on the chopping board. Ayona’s key whirled on her right index finger, timed to the knife. The kettle gurgled on beside them. Tina was beginning to get uneasy. Her vision was becoming fuzzy. She could feel the ache underneath her knuckles. Suddenly two fingers swooped into the bowl in front of her cutting board and picked off a few pieces of ginger. Tina’s head shot up. There she was, Ayona, munching the ginger, a grin lurking behind her lips, an eyebrow cocked up. She put her hand out once again and picked more ginger from the bowl, chuckling. Her eyebrows were dancing now.
Tina stood facing her, knife in one hand, half a chilli in the other. Her jaws tight from teeth clenched too hard. “Stop eating my lunch,” she said, slowly.
“I’m helping your lunch get better,” Ayona said, throwing a parodic kiss.
Tina let out a hefty breath, put down the knife, pursed her lips and began to tickle Ayona’s belly. “Go away. Go do your reading. You’re cluttering the kitchen. Go away.”
“Calm down woman!” Ayona laughed, taking hold of Tina’s wrist. She leapt at her and before they knew it, they were spinning around the pantry, Tina locked in Ayona’s arms, laughing between shrieks and tears and punches and more tickles, pleading to be let down for fear of knocking things off the counter and the shelves.
The kettle clicked. Ayona let go of Tina. They stood looking at each other for a while. Ayona walked over to the kettle and set about making her tea, back turned to Tina.
“Is… is your leftover pizza enough for lunch?” Tina asked, resuming work on the chopping board.
Ayona didn’t reply. She kept stirring her tea.
Tina’s heart began to hammer in her eardrums once again. Her breathing strained a little. In all of their time together at university, Tina had blamed her inability to approach Ayona with her romantic feelings on the ways of the society, where dating happened invisibly, where you found two people staring at each other until one day they were back to not staring anymore, where the youth always fought for LGBTQIA+ rights even though people hardly knew anyone who was gay, let alone any other kind of queers. But now they were together, just them. And yet, the problem persisted: What if Ayona couldn’t love her after all? Tina was scratching on the counter with her left thumb. What if Ayona was not like her? Would they not be friends anymore, then? Despite everything, Ayona was her best friend and she didn’t want to risk losing her company. So should the unspeakable be spoken at all?
Ayona threw the tea bag in the bin and turned to face Tina. “Not really. I still eat about five meals a day. Haven’t changed one bit in that! And anyway, I wouldn’t have asked to stay with you if I’d known I’d have to face aubergines.”
“What’s wrong with aubergines?”
Ayona walked over to the fridge and scanned its contents. “Eekh! You’re the kind that likes bitter gourds and bottle gourds and broccoli. Proof of how little one knows another when they’ve only shared street food.”
Finally, the snicker that barely stretched those luscious lips but peered out of those ebony eyes, amused and mocking.
“They’re good stuff,” Tina replied.
“You don’t even use spices!”
“I like to preserve my ability to taste good stuff.”
“You like to retain the ickiness of these things. Anyway, I want some coffee. Where’s the nearest cafe?”
“Umm… there’s coffee in that cupboard above your head.”
“Can you make coffee that tastes like one bought from a café?” Ayona asked, the delicious half-smile floating on her lips again.
Tina couldn’t help it. She broke into a grin. “There’s a café at the corner of this street that also has great ice-cream and donuts,” she said.
Ayona poured her tea into the arrowhead vine’s roots. “Good. Then, leave this stuff. Let’s go.”