I attended one of those schools where much care was taken to separate vaginas from penises. The girls sat in a row of their own. The guys played on a ground of their own. Our roll numbers were neatly segregated too. The last vagina was roll number 22 and it was schlongs all the way up to roll number 45.
At roll number 23, I straddled the precarious divide between the two genders. Having no interest in numerology, I ascribed no particular importance to this odious prime number until I was assigned the table to perform Chemistry experiments with Aditi—roll number 22.
She was by far an unlikely girl to fall in love with but hormones work by way of optimizing the chances of mating and she had won bonus points for proximity. Every Tuesday, at 2pm, we would wait in line outside the lab for the old ladies to open the creaky doors to our dark dungeon of a lab. After a barrage of instructions, which included inappropriately graphic accounts of how acids could potentially eat your skin and flesh, we would walk over to our assigned tables in pairs of two. We were the only mixed gender pair in the Chemistry lab and it would inevitably have me glowing with feelings that I barely recognize even today. I suppose it was mostly pride and embarrassment but aren’t they often barely discernible from each other?
Aditi was your stereotypical girl—soft hands, soft voice, soft manners—except for her unibrow. She was too delicate, too finicky. She was everything I had imagined a girl would be like. She couldn’t operate the Bunsen burner. So we had agreed on a delicate arrangement of our own. I lit her fires. All of them. She washed beakers and flasks. I pipetted acids for her. She washed the flasks with care, casting anxious looks as I adjusted the titration instrument or held a beaker of sulphuric acid close to her. “Be careful” she would gasp. My hunter instincts had kicked in and so had her ovarian caretaking instincts. For a couple of hours every week, we’d quietly relish the vicissitudes of a tribal domestic living amidst other unsuspecting students who probably counted having an orkut account as their farthest forays into adulthood.
In retrospect, I think Aditi had provided me with sufficient gender contrast to gravitate strongly towards my own assigned gender role. She had provided me an elbow room to nudge my way into young manhood. During the few months that I had spent with her, I had acquired a risky edge, my voice had grown a notch deeper and I’d witnessed an irrepressible sprouting of facial hair.
It wasn’t surprising then, that one fine afternoon, it didn’t occur to me that in my feverish attempts at producing the most spectacular sparks, I had supplied an ounce too much of zinc powder. Or maybe it wasn’t zinc after all but one of those other chemicals that burnt with a deep red infused with a touch of green. My hand retracted itself, I shrieked as the sparks grew louder and brighter, and as I leaned on the old wooden furniture that held old glass bottles and beakers, there was a clatter of glass breaking, of chemicals spilling onto one another, of scattered ashes and flames. A hand held mine tightly. I opened my eyes. Aditi stood by my side, holding my hand for a minute too long. We were practically married.
Soon, the lab administrator arrived and reinstated with vigour the perils of haste in a chemistry lab. The Chemistry teacher arrived soon afterwards and provided a dose of her concerns.
The other students had snuffed their burners. I could hear them whispering. I wondered what they’d talk about. I could tell that my ears burnt red. The burner by Aditi’s side was still aglow. The others filed out of the lab for the Physics lecture while Aditi titrated all by herself. I stood with my eyes on my toes as the two old ladies stood berating me.
It’s been years since then. Aditi has shaved off her unibrow and married a guy. They’ve renovated the chemistry lab and moved it to an airier floor. There are no flames; no sparks; only vague memories.