Cold War

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I’m licking the last bit of cappuccino-almond tiramisu when she says, ‘When was the last time you had a good time?’ and I’m thrown off-kilter. What could she possibly mean by that? But I don’t bite at it immediately because that’d piss her off. I want her to try a little harder.

I say, ‘Umm… this is delicious’

I glance at her briefly, casually, with only a slight emergent doubt. Her eyes are lost in her long slender fingernails dyed a deep shade of red.

She says, ‘How’s that friend of yours?’

‘Who?’

She snorts. ‘The one who sleep-talked’

‘Not been in touch with her…’

‘Oh, I see’

‘What do you mean?’

This is a question you should never, ever, ask her because this is the question she wants to ensnare everyone with. Who is that girl? What does she mean? What point could she have possibly made? Although, of course, there’s never, ever, a point made. All smoke and mirrors. But when you’re in the moment, when one of her poisonous darts stabs you in the heart, you can’t help but react. And react badly.

I say, ‘I’ve not been in touch with her because I’ve been busy… with stuff’

‘Busy weekends, huh? How’s your new flatmate?’

‘I don’t have a flatmate’

She pretends like that’s a breaking news to her but with just enough ineptitude to convince me, or anyone, that it’s all just an act. But why? What’s the point? Do I have to explain my loneliness now? Is that what our friendship has become?

She says, ‘Why don’t you stay with your friends?’

I wish I were a guy. I wish friendship felt less like a cold war and more like friendship. When my brother’s friends would come over in his room upstairs, I couldn’t tell if they were fighting or just having a good time.

I say, ‘Because I don’t know who my friends are anymore’

Her smile shrinks. It’s her turn to feel the sting of a poisonous dart. She checks her phone. I drop my spoon on the plate and sigh.

We’ve been friends for more than a decade. There are better days, when we vomit all our memories and ridicule all the people we know back home. The squint-eyed girl who bombed during a play, the English teacher who went nuts during a recital. What are they doing, I ask her. What have they been up to? I haven’t been home for a while now and now that she’s in the city, on good days, the city feels like an hour after school. Sometimes, she laughs so hard, her ears burn red, tears roll down her cheeks and I can’t tell if she’s crying. It’s usually dark by then and we’re on our way back home. She stays five stops down the road in an area where three girls can stay for the rent of one. Sometimes, I ask her about it. How can you stay in such cramped spaces? I taunt her, with good humour, that the only place for her to walk out and have a beer would be Shanti Bar – flocked with men afflicted with perpetual-crotch-itch-syndrome. Don’t you feel unsafe? Why don’t you hail a taxi?
Why don’t you come and stay with me is a question I don’t ask her and it has only just occurred to me. What does that mean?

We split the bill and are out on the road. She walks slowly, hunched over her phone, unendingly abuzz with notifications. I walk even slower. Bikes swoosh past us. It’s a cold November night. Yellow lights shine through a faint mist. I look at her from a distance as she keeps walking.

When she finally turns around, I say, in a voice that aspires to be loud and harsh, but which, inevitably, escapes as a whisper, like I’m sleep-talking to myself – ‘Bitch!’

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