In first grade, he is her best friend.
It happens by accident; her desk is placed right next to his, her name written out in neat script on a dotted line, the alphabet typed out above it and a number line below it. It stops at twenty. Devi can count to a thousand without losing track, or getting bored.
He picks at a hole in his desk and chews on his lips and Devi wants to tell him that she can see him looking at her, out of the corner of his eye, and that she wants him to stop, please. But then he smiles when she catches him and sticks her tongue out.
“My name is Ben,” he whispers. He has the bluest eyes she has ever seen. “My last name is Gross, but I’m not. Not gross. Even though it’s my last name.”
“Okay,” she says. “My name means goddess, but I’m not one.”
“Oh,” Ben responds. One corner of his mouth pulls down. “I don’t know what my name means.”
“That’s okay,” she says, shrugging. They are quiet. A piece of his desk flakes off beneath his fingernails. “Want to sit together at lunch?” she asks, raising her eyebrows.
He smiles almost perfectly. There is a gap where two of his teeth are missing. “Yes, please,” he says, nodding. It makes his hair fall into his eyes, and something silly inside of her wants to twirl it around her fingers. Or yank on it. She is not quite sure which one she wants more.
“And then we can play together at recess,” she adds. He smiles bigger, and it stretches his face out, and makes his cheeks look perfectly round.
“Yes,” he says, with an emphasis.
They eat lunch together everyday, and play at recess everyday. Eventually, a tiny girl with a pink streak dyed into her hair sits down with them, plopping a purple, plastic lunch box with sparkles on it on the center of the table, introducing herself as Eleanor Wong. They share an apple.
It takes a few months for her to get nervous around Ben. For the gaps in his smile to look endearing, and for her to want to dance around with him the way her parents do with each other.
He is the reason she pulls herself away from the swings on alternating days to sit on top of the monkey bars. She had to show him how to pull himself up, bracing his feet against the railing from the jungle gym. Now, he does it easily while her hands shake every time he smiles.
“Are your parents married?” he asks, suddenly, cupping his hands around nothing.
Devi furrows her brow. “Yeah,” she says, immediately, “amma and appa are in love.”
“Wow,” he says, “my parents say I love you, but they’re never home.”
“Oh,” she says, something big and complicated and—and angry splintering to life inside of her chest. Her skin, suddenly, feels too small for her body. “Then you’re by yourself. I’ll come live with you! Or amma and appa can adopt you.”
“No, I— my housekeeper stays with me,” he says, then smiles, some of the glow in his cheeks coming back. “Sometimes, she brings her sons to stay on the weekend. I like to pretend they’re my brothers, and that my family’s big.”
“I do that with my cousins!” Devi says. They are all visiting from India, and Kamala at thirteen years old is closest to her in age. Shreya and Ajira and Rajni are all too old to be interested in Devi. “Sometimes, I call Kamala akka. That means big sister.”
“Marcus and Andrew are really cool,” Ben says, “they’re teaching me to play basketball.”
“Are you good?”
“I will be.”
“Yeah,” he says, and stays quiet, looking in the distance. Her father calls that look wistful, and had sat down with her to look it up in the dictionary when she asked what it meant—
—having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing, she had read, smoothing her finger underneath of the words, breaking them up into syllables—
—and she wonders, in the back of her mind, what Ben is longing for.
“Do you ever think about getting married?” he asks, all of a sudden. He is studying his hands.
“Sometimes,” she says. She knows how her parents met, that her grandparents arranged them, that they fell in love after they got married. And she knows how love happens in movies and on television. Neither way has ever seemed to apply to her, too contrasting with both worlds to ever truly live in either.
“I don’t know.”
“What if you never get married?”
“I want to.”
“You could marry me,” he says, quickly, like he has been waiting for a long time to get the words out.
It surprises her, but the idea of it does not sound bad. She does not want to kiss him, or live with him—
—would she have to share her bedroom?—
—but she does not want to say no.
“I’d have to ask my mom,” she says, and Ben laughs, full body. He presses a hand to his stomach. “Why is that so funny?”
“I didn’t mean now,” he says, rolling his eyes, like it is obvious. “I meant, like, a hundred years from now. If we’re both old, and we aren’t married but want to marry someone. We just marry each other and live in our nursing home together.”
“Will I have to share my room?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
“Okay, then I agree,” she says, putting her hand out for him to shake. A thought occurs to her, though, and she pulls it back just before he can grab it. “Wait, how old will we have to be to marry each other?”
“I don’t know. Thirty?”
“That’s too old,” Devi says, wrinkling her nose. “What about twenty-eight. Amma and appa were twenty-eight when they got married.”
“Then twenty-eight,” he says. This time, when he reaches for her hand to shake it, she lets him. His skin is warm, and his palm is sweaty. When he let's go, she wipes her own palm along her jeans.
The recess guard blows the line up whistle, and Devi gasps. She wraps her arms around one of the bars, and drops her weight through. She hangs in open air for a moment, before letting go, landing carefully.
Ben makes it down the ladder in the time it takes her to straighten up and brush off her clothes, swiping away imaginary debris.
“Race you to the line up,” she says, and turns, bolting ahead of him before he even has a chance to start running.
The year she turns thirteen is the same year that she says I hate you to him and really means it.
She has said it before, shoving his shoulder after lost rounds of Mario Kart or staring down a gap-toothed smile when he would steal his snacks, but now—
—he is growing up, grown up, has not given her a good reason to shove his shoulder or stare down his too-perfect smile and grind out words she thought she could never mean—
—and it is silly that she means them now—
—he is his own person, a teenager now, perfect capable of kissing whoever he wants—
—the thought that it should be her flickers through her brain, errant, unwelcome, a too obvious and too complicated explanation for this anger—
—he is kissing Shira behind a heavy blue curtain in the Dolby Theatre, of all places, his hands tentative on her shoulders.
“Oh,” Devi breathes out, then coughs, and Ben springs away from her like she burns, like there is poison on her lips. Shira does not turn around, just looks down at her fingernails.
“Devi,” Ben says, voice wavering, thick in his throat. She feels sick. “I—”
“Did—did you know that parrotfish have two rows of teeth?” she says, her voice coming out watery, thin, like there is no substance behind it, no greater drive inside of her. “Their beak is technically a row of them.”
Ben blinks once, fast, then dips his head and whispers something to Shira.
“Whatevs,” she says, and walks off. She is wearing chunky wedges, and they click on the tile, satisfying. Devi hears a door open, then close.
“You’re upset,” Ben says, his hands at his side, still, like he is waiting for Devi’s inevitable explosion—
—has she always been this volatile?—
—and she tries not to let that stoke her anger.
“I’m talking about parrotfish.”
“Yeah,” he says, “that’s how I know you’re upset.”
“What do parrotfish have to do with me being upset?” she asks, scoffing, and wrapping her arms around herself like a shield. She finds a thread unraveling from the elbow of her cardigan and wraps it around her finger.
“You always do stuff like this when you’re upset,” he says, an edge in his voice. She feels caught, inexplicably, like a butterfly with pins stuck through her wings. “You bring up something random to try to distract everyone so you don’t have to handle a hard conversation.”
Anger rises up in her, sharp and hot and malignant. “As opposed to you, sad boy straight up avoiding any kind of confrontation so you don’t have to deal with the chance that it might not work out?”
“I’m not trying to be mean, Devi, I just—”
“—you never do, Ben—”
“—Devi, I swear, I wasn’t—“
—it hits her, all at once, that they are irredeemably different, that the only thing still between them is misplaced loyalty, and—
“—so? you still were—”
“—I know, but you won’t let me explain—”
—the words slip out before she can stop them—
“—I hate you—”
—she means it, but only for a second—
—and Ben’s face falls, something changing in those eyes that she made promises to, like a light going out of a window.
“You hate me?” he repeats, like a question, and she opens her mouth uselessly. She feels empty. Wrung out. Like someone has twisted her limbs and shaken all of the energy, all of the feeling, out of the gaps.
“Don’t,” he says, whisper-quiet, breaking, like his throat is gathering storm clouds. “Don’t say it again.”
He turns around, disappearing the same way that Shira did.
“Ben!” she shouts, her body unlocking, and she runs to the door, pushing aside heavy blue curtains. “Wait, I—”
“Why?” he asks, turning around—
—it is his turn, now, to explode, she thinks—
—and tossing his hands in the air, looking defeated. There was a time, a million years ago, on playground monkey bars and in tree bark mulch pits, that he looked at her like she could offer him everything, and smiled at her the same way.
That look is long gone now. She would do anything to have it back.
“Because, I-I can’t—”
He rolls his eyes, and it makes her fall short. “You hate me, Devi. So what’s even the point?” he asks, venomous, dangerous. “There is none. If you hate me, then everything is pointless.”
“And-and maybe I hate you too,” he says, and she finally, finally, feels the full effect of the words, feels them like punches, and reacts like they were; the wind is knocked out of her and her ribs ache. “Maybe it’s more than a maybe.”
“Fine,” she says, and feels tears prick at the back of her eyes, “fine. I hate you, and you hate me, and there’s no fixing it. Is there? Not when it’s more than a maybe.”
He sets his jaw. Looks at her in an entirely new way. “Bye, Devi.”
“Happy birthday, Ben,” she spits, and pretends that the hurt look on his face makes her happy.
She smacks the acceptance letter down on Ben's desk first thing in the morning.
“Is this you asking me to teach you how to read?” Ben asks, not bothering to look up from his phone. “Because I’m gonna have to decline—not only are you a hopeless case, but I’m all booked out for the foreseeable future.”
“Oh, please, you have no friends and your only after school activity for December is sorting files for your fat dad,” she says, rolling her eyes, and moving to snatch her acceptance letter away from him, but he grabs it before she can.
“You’re obsessed with me, David,” he says, flicking his eyes up at her for a moment before turning his phone off and looking down at her letter. He scans it for a moment, and Devi toys with the straps of her backpack—
—she is, suddenly, nervous—
—he had only looked at her for a second, but his gaze had felt so heavy, so loaded—
—and rocks back and forth on the balls of her feet.
“Princeton,” he finally says, setting the letter back on his desk. He slides it back to her with the tips of two fingers. She takes it, folding it back up and tucking it into her backpack. “Good job.”
She makes a face. Since when did they offer each other congratulations?—
—There was a time, a million years ago, where this announcement would have ended with cheers and hugs and kisses on her cheeks, if she was lucky—
—“What?” she asks.
“Good job?” he repeats, like a question.
“Where's the insult?” she asks, dropping into her desk behind him. He swivels to look at her. “The assurance that they must’ve sent me the wrong letter and that my rejection is coming so I shouldn’t get my hopes up?”
“Good job… idiot?” he says, looking at her with a strange look on his face.
“Did you have a brain hemorrhage and end up with a whole new personality overnight?” she asks. “Or is this an Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation?”
“Great film, but no,” Ben says. He shrugs, and the look on his face that Devi has always known to associate with him—
—shit eating and smug and dripping with braggadocio—
—is gone, and suddenly, he reminds her of someone she knew long ago, of Ben, her best friend—
—smiling and perfect and everything she ever needed—
—and it tugs her heart in a million directions, her skin feeling too small for her body. She wants to reach out and touch him, to feel proof that he is real.
“Then… what?” she asks, looking at him strangely. All the fight, all the humour, has gone out of her. The tips of her fingers are shaking.
“I-I’m proud of you, Devi,” he says. Her heartbeat speeds up. “I know this has always been your dream, and I’m happy for you. And proud of you for achieving it. It's—it’s amazing, Devi.”
“Oh,” she says, unsure of what else to say—
—she misses him, she misses him, she misses him—
—“thank you, Ben. That means a lot.”
“And I’m—glad I’ll be seeing you,” he adds, and she snaps her head up to look at him. He is blushing, his cheeks pink. It is steadily spreading down his neck.
“Seeing me?” she asks, furrowing her brow.
“I got in,” he tells her—
—he has the bluest eyes she has ever seen—
—and twists his fingers around each other, “to Princeton. And I decided that I’m—I’m going.”
“You’re going to Princeton?” she asks, her voice sounding defeated, useless. “Like—Princeton, New Jersey Princeton? That Princeton?”
He smiles, looking self assured. “Yeah, Princeton, New Jersey Princeton. That Princeton,” he says, parroting her words. “That is the one.”
“And that's—that’s where you want to go?” Devi asks, something indescribable, unnameable taking flight inside of her chest. “Princeton?”
“You always said Yale,” she says, remembering Ben as a little boy, wearing oversized Yale t-shirts and pinning a tiny flag inside of his sixth grade locker, swearing up and down that that is where he is going to go. “When—when did that change?”
“God, I don’t know,” he says, laughing softly. He scrubs the back of his hand over his cheek. “Probably sophomore year, when I finally realized my dad isn’t someone I should be idolizing as much as I do. Plus, Connecticut.”
“Yeah,” she says, “Connecticut.”
She wants to say something more—
—that she is proud of him, is happy for him, that she has hated his parents for so long, and that sometimes, when she misses him more than he could ever miss her, she looks through her mothers scrapbook of a zoo trip they took together, for his eighth birthday, and she misses him even more but in a completely different way—
—but the bell rings, and Shapiro walks in wearing a cowboy hat, and everything built between them falls apart.
“So, why have you called an emergency council meeting in the middle of my nap time?” Rebecca asks, crossing her arms. Every time she has ever been in Devi’s bedroom, Rebecca always sits on the exact same spot: the low backed chair in front of Devi’s vanity. She sits on it like it is a throne, and Devi thinks that is perfect.
“Because Ben was nice to me,” Devi says. The effect is instantaneous; everyone in the room sighs.
“For the love of God, Devi,” Aneesa says, rolling her eyes, “you cannot call a council meeting every time Ben is nice to you. The council meetings are for emergencies and/or opinions on Tinder hookups.”
“This is an emergency!” she insists. Eleanor scoffs. “He said he was looking forward to being at Princeton with me!”
“Probably because it’ll be nice for him to have someone that he knows going there,” Fabiola says, “I mean, aren’t you at least a little relieved that you’ll have a familiar face?”
“Not when it’s Ben,” Devi says, only partially lying. “I mean, hes a blond rat, why would I ever be excited to have to keep seeing his face?”
“Is he really blond, though?” Eleanor asks, furrowing her brow. “I mean, Rebecca is blonde. Ben is, like, tricky blond.”
“Yeah, he’s not one of us,” Rebecca says, shaking her head. “Not even close to being one of us. It's a very exclusive membership.”
“Are people who dye their hair blonde eligible?” Fabiola asks. “Or is it more of a natural blonde thing? Like, if I bleached my hair right now, could I get in?”
“You are automatically welcome in any club I’m a part of,” Rebecca says, “I adore you.”
“This is not what council meetings are for, and this is not what I had in mind when I convened you all,” Devi says, crossing her arms, “you’re unreliable. I’m taking back my five star Yelp review for this council. And finding a new one.”
“No, you aren’t, you love us,” Aneesa says, tucking her legs underneath herself. “Okay, but for real, I’m sure it’s just because he’s excited to have someone he knows at the school with him.”
“Yeah, it’s not like Princeton is local,” Fabiola adds.
“And he could be tired of fighting with you all the time,” Eleanor says—
—if you hate me, then everything is pointless—
—“I mean, you guys are adults now. You can’t fight like little kids all the time.”
“That means he could want to be friends, though,” Devi says, sticking out her bottom lip. “What do I do with that?”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Aneesa says, “you two have always hated each other—”
—Devi catches Eleanor’s eye, and she knows exactly what she is thinking—
—too many lunches and recess games and perfect gap-toothed smiles for them to have hated each other since the beginning—
—“I seriously doubt he’s going to suddenly ask you to be friends.”
It makes her unreasonably sad, the prospect that he would not even try, would not bring it up, would not ask to sit down over coffee and ice cream to talk about everything that went wrong. To make up. To let the years of guilt and mistakes and hurled insults be a thing of the past—
—she misses his perfect smiles—
—and she digs her fingernails into her palms, pushing down all the little bits of hope attempting to take flight inside of her.
“So, I—what do I do now?” she asks, her voice coming out too small, too timid.
“You go to Princeton, and you do whatever you want. Whatever is right for you,” Rebecca says, “you don’t have to do what Ben might want you to do. If you don’t want to be his friend, then don’t be his friend.”
“—You don’t need any buts, Devi,” Aneesa says, “you’ve always more or less done whatever you want, anyway. Why wouldn’t you do it now, too?”
“She is right about that,” Fabiola says, “You’ve never let anything stop you before.”
“I think you’re just afraid because things are changing, and you aren’t exactly great with change.”
“Yeah, when you thought you were moving to India, you straight up ran away.”
“You ran away?” Aneesa asks, sitting up straight. “But you’re brown.”
“Rude,” Devi says, furrowing her brow. “But yeah, I ran away—for a week. I stayed with Rebecca.”
“I hid her so well,” Rebecca says, smiling.
“Your whole family and my mother knew I was there,” Devi says, frowning. “I ate dinner with you guys every night. Your mom made white people tacos. Twice.”
“You loved the white people tacos.”
“Doesn’t make them less white people tacos,” Devi says.
“You ran away and lived with white people,” Aneesa says, nodding, “honestly, I can see it.”
“Hey!” Devi says.
“What?” Aneesa asks, holding her hands up. “I would live with Rebecca if I ever ran away. Which… I’m not going to do, in case my mom put tape recorders in your house.”
“I’ll check the vents after you leave,” Devi says, shrugging. She is quiet for a moment, before saying, “you really think I should just do whatever I want to do?”
“Yes,” Eleanor says, “and set the world on fire while you do it.”
“Ooh, arson sounds nice,” Devi says, tilting backwards on her bed.
“Yeah, yeah, fire, destruction, rage,” Rebecca says. “But as per the council meeting rules, you should be providing snacks…”
Devi rolls her eyes. “Fine, follow me,” she says, getting up from her bed and stretching. “We have everything—there's some leftover pani puri, too, if anyone is interested.”
“Oh, hell yes,” Aneesa says, getting up quickly. She bolts from the room. “I call the pani puri!”
“You’re gonna have to fight me for it,” Rebecca says, following her out. “I love Dr Vishwakumar’s cooking.”
“It’ll be okay, Devi,” Eleanor says, “seriously. It will.”
Fabiola nods, and follows Eleanor out of the room.
Devi stands there for a moment, then pulls her phone out of her pocket. She pulls up Ben's contact, and clicks message.
devi: congrats on getting into princeton ben. dont count on being valedictorian there either
ben: Thanks, Devi. Same to you.
ben: I hope you’re prepared to never see your name listed next to the valedictorian role, ever. Nothing is promised this year.
devi: oh yes it is. im a lock
ben: In your dreams, David. See you on Monday.
ben: Believe me, I know.
Her roommate, as it turns out, is Preethi’s sister from her sophomore year Ganesh Pooja. Her name is Keerthi Ramachandran, and the moment she walks into their shared dorm room, Devi cringes. Keerthi recognizes Devi right away, and rolls her eyes at the look on Devi’s face.
“So, uh… is Preethi still doing Bollywood dancing?” Devi asks, feeling awkward and stupid.
“She’s a dance majour and cheerleader at UCLA,” Keerthi says, sitting down heavily on the bed that Devi did not claim. “Are you still dorky?”
“I’m sorry,” Devi blurts, sitting down opposite Keerthi. “It was really rude of me to say that.”
“It was,” Keerthi says, and then grins. “You’re just lucky that Preethi didn’t hear you—she would’ve wrecked your shit.”
Devi’s eyes widen. “Seriously?”
“Oh yeah,” Keerthi says, “she’s strong, too. She made so much money her senior year of high school off of bets that she could beat some of the dudebro athletes in arm wrestling.”
“Oh, God,” Devi says, putting her face in her hands. “That could’ve been so much worse than it was.”
“Oh, for sure,” Keerthi says, then sighs. “But I—I get it. Being part of the Indian diaspora is hard and confusing. We’re all still figuring it out.”
Devi smiles at her. “Thanks for not… murdering me in defense of your sister,” she says, tapping her fingers against her thighs nervously. “I really appreciate that.”
“Thanks for being prepared to apologize so I didn’t have to murder you in defense of my sister,” Keerthi says, and sticks out her hand. “Shake on the truce?”
“Absolutely,” Devi says, shaking her hand. “Where are you from? Like, within California? I know pooja tends to draw a crowd.”
“Oh, just Santa Monica,” Keerthi says. She breaks the tape on one of the boxes, and pulls out some picture frames.
“You don’t do pooja there?” Devi asks, making a face. She presses a Command hook to the spot on the wall that she wants it to be. “Santa Monica is way higher profile than Sherman Oaks.”
“I think my ammu has a beef with the Santa Monica pooja,” Keerthi says, “they asked a dance group that wasn’t Preethi’s to perform one year, and ever since, we drive half an hour to Sherman Oaks.”
“Oh, I’m surprised my mom still wanted to go to the pooja in Sherman Oaks. It was probably just straight up spite.”
“Why?” Keerthi asks, looking at Devi with her eyebrows knit together.
“Oh,” Devi says, and looks down at her hands—
—back home, it felt like everyone knew who she was: the Indian girl who ended up in a wheelchair after her dad died in front of her at her spring concert—
—she can still remember that stupid college counselour condensing the worst year of her life into a single sentence, like that is all it is, like her dad is just a heart attack and a death and like she is just a girl that tragedy catches up with—
—but Princeton is different from that, it is across the country from that, and getting used to that—
—to no one knowing that everything left of her appa is settled at the bottom of the ocean—
—is going to take some time—
—“my dad died that March, in front of me. And I ended up in a wheelchair, because I wasn't processing the trauma, and my legs just… stopped working.”
“Whoa,” Keerthi says. She walks across the short space between their beds, and sits down next to Devi on hers. “Shit, Devi.”
“Yeah,” she says, and shrugs. “Anyway, we probably wouldn’t have gone, but my cousin had just moved in, and she cared about going—plus, I guess Sanchiti Bhattacharyya was really condescending to my mom about it, so that’s where the spite comes in.”
“Ugh, Sanchiti never knows when to keep her mouth shut,” Keerthi says, and rolls her eyes. She laughs, but it comes out nervous and watery.
“You don’t know what to say, huh?” Devi asks, smiling with one corner of her mouth.
“Nope,” Keerthi admits, “you’ve stumped me.”
“That’s fine, I’d rather you admit to being stumped than say you get it or something.”
“Fair enough,” Keerthi says, “I’m sorry, though. For your loss. Is it too soon in the course of our roommate-hood to tell you that you can talk to me if you ever need it?”
“Nah,” Devi says, shrugging, “never too soon. And, in return for that, I will tell you the story of how my cousin ran out on her arranged marriage engagement dinner to sing karaoke with my literature teacher.”
Keerthi looks at her with wide eyes. “No,” she says, her voice low, “she did not.”
“Tell me, tell me right—there is a man in our doorway,” Keerthi says, cutting herself off and looking past Devi’s shoulder.
“What?” Devi says, whirling around. Ben is standing there, looking like he wants to be smaller than he is. “Oh, that’s not a man. It's a Ben.”
“Excuse me, I am the manliest of men,” Ben says, putting a hand to his chest, “I can’t believe you’re lying to your roommate.”
“Keerthi,” she says, by way of introduction. “I guess you’re Ben.”
Devi rolls her eyes. “What do you want, Ben?” she asks, standing up and leaning against the door. “And, no, I will not be giving up on being valedictorian early.”
He shrugs. “That’s fine, you can just give up on time, then,” he says. “Actually, I’m here because I wanted to take you to get coffee, and to try to find a time to renegotiate our pact for college. I don’t think young republicans really applies anymore.”
Devi looks back at Keerthi, who mouths do it and makes a shoo motion with her hands.
“Fine,” Devi says, grabbing her jacket and keys. “But if you murder me, I’m going to be sorely disappointed in you.”
“I’m not gonna murder you, David,” he says, following her out. “Though, if you died in my presence, you would die happy.”
She rolls her eyes. “In your dreams, Gross.”
“So, you’ve dragged me away from my roommate and gotten me to a secondary location,” Devi says, leaning against the Starbucks counter, waiting for her coffee, “that means this is where you murder me, right?”
“Yeah, right here out in the open, in front of all these witnesses and Starbucks security cameras,” he says, “and they’ll never catch me.”
“You're white, so… yeah.”
He opens and closes his mouth. “There’s no good way for me to respond to that.”
She smiles. “I know.”
“Great,” he says, and sticks his hands in his pockets, awkward.
The barista calls Devi’s name, and slides her her coffee. She takes a sip, ahh’ing gratefully. “I love dirty bean water.”
“Never call it that again.”
“Call it what, dirty bean water? Because that’s what it is. It’s dirty bean water,” she says, smiling.
He rolls his eyes, but says nothing, gesturing instead to a tall table in the back corner of the room. “Wanna sit?” he asks, and she nods, walking over to the table.
She pulls herself up into the seat, and looks at him critically, across the table. “When do you want to diplomatically renegotiate the pact?”
“We’ve got a week til classes start,” he says, “are you gonna be busy on the weekend? Like, Sunday maybe?”
“Can't tell what I’m more upset about,” she says, to the strange look on his face, “you assuming I’m not busy this weekend, or the fact that you’re right.”
He snorts. “You’ve never been busy on a weekend.”
“I was regularly busy on the weekends,” Devi says, rolling her eyes, “I even threw parties.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Ben says. “So you’re a lock for Sunday?”
“Yes, Ben,” she says, “I am a lock for Sunday.”
“Good, because I’m writing it in my planner.”
“God, you’re pretentious,” she says, “I forgot how pretentious you were, you and your planners.”
“I still have them all,” he says, “kindergarten and forward.”
Her heart flutters. “Do—Do you still have the one that I wrote my name on everyday?”
He laughs. “Yeah,” he says, and presses the tip of his index finger against the table, “I could probably write the letters in my sleep.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“Not perfectly,” he says, shrugging. He traces his finger over the table, in the shape of the first letter. “But I could get pretty close.”
She opens and closes her mouth. “I believe you,” she says, “but I’m gonna want proof. At some point.”
“If I had a pen, I would prove it now.”
“I know,” she says, and laughs, “it’s because you’re pretentious.”
“No, it’s because I know I’m right.”
“There’s plenty of ways for the pot to call the kettle black,” she retorts, raising her eyebrows and taking a sip of her coffee. They are quiet for a moment. “Remember when we got so mad at our fourth grade teacher for separating our desks that we learned Morse code and some ASL just to keep talking and spite her?”
He signs yes. “We were menaces.”
“We were awful,” Devi says, covering her face with her hands, “and what was she gonna do? Ban blinking?”
“Oh, I think she considered it,” Ben says, “I think she even called us little demon children in French.”
“Really?” Devi asks, gasping. “That’s amazing!”
“I want to put it on my résumé,” she tells him, “that’s, like my favourite thing a teacher has ever said about me.”
“God, I know,” he says, sighing. “Do you remember when no one signed my cast, and you went around threatening people for it?”
“Oh, God,” she says, flushing red. “I directly threatened Caitlin Fulton, too. Like, personally.”
“I didn’t know that,” he says.
“Yeah,” she tells him, “she made fun of the colour of your cast—”
“—Literally how can you make fun of red?” he asks, interrupting, and making a face.
“That’s what I said!” she exclaims, pounding a fist on the table. “Anyway, she was making fun of it, and I heard her—and if you tell anyone about what I’m about to say, I’ll kill you and deny it—and I straight up threatened to cut off her hair if she didn’t sign your cast.”
Ben looks at her incredulously. “You threatened to cut off her hair?” he asks, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah. I had scissors and everything.”
“I know, I know,” she says, scrubbing a hand over her face. “But, in my defense, it worked.”
“She drew a frowny face next to your name,” Ben tells her.
“I always knew that was her,” Devi says, nodding, “I deserved it.”
“Yeah, you definitely did,” he says, tapping his fingers against the tabletop. “Remember, in first grade—”
—suddenly, she can picture him, seven years old and on the top of the monkey bars, asking her to marry him—
—and she can remember herself agreeing—
—and she is terrified that that is what Ben will say next, that she will have to confront the idea that he remembers one of their most tender moments—
—that she will have to deal with the fact, all over again, that they will never have that relationship again, for as long as they are alive—
—“When Eleanor punched that third grader in the stomach for trying to take her fruit roll up?” he asks instead, and her entire body unclenches. Her shoulders sag.
“She still talks about it,” Devi tells him, “says it was one of her crowning achievements.”
“I can see why,” he says, blowing out a breath, “Thad Nelson is still a giant.”
“God, he was terrifying,” Devi says, “he was already, like, five feet tall in third grade. How tall is he now? Nine foot seven?”
“Close. Six foot four.”
“Jesus,” she says, shaking her head, “remind me to take him apple picking.”
“God, I know,” Ben says, “they shouldn’t manufacture humans that size. It’s an engineering nightmare.”
“All humans are engineering nightmares,” she says, rolling her eyes, “like, have you seen a human spine lately? Ridiculous. We are not built to last.”
“Have you seen a human spine lately?” he asks, ignoring the majority of her sentence. “Or, like… any spine?”
“No, but you know what I mean.”
“I do,” he says, “we have the durability of an iPhone.”
“Maybe we’re just the first draft of a dragon and our spines will eventually evolve into our necks?”
“What, so we can be dragons with neck problems?” she asks, downing the rest of her coffee and tossing the empty cup in the trash can. “If God wants dragons, then he should just scrap us and start over.”
“But wouldn't it be so cool to be reincarnated as a dragon? But to have also been a human in the past,” he says, talking quickly, the way he always does when he is excited, “I mean, come on, we evolved from apes. The next logical step could always be reptiles.”
“Do dragons inherently have to be reptiles?” she asks, tilting her head.
“I would think so,” he says, frowning, “otherwise it’s just another species of mythical creature.”
“Good point…” Devi says, trailing off. “I might have to think about this, and then get back to you.”
He laughs, tossing his head back. “You wanna present your case on Sunday?”
“Yeah, I think I do,” she says. She jumps down from the chair, and pushes it back in place. “Now you know for sure that I’ll be there, since I have an argument to make.”
“Eh, I wasn’t really worried about it to begin with,” he says, and shrugs, following her to the door, “you’re an insufferable asshole, but you aren’t usually flaky. At least, not when it benefits you.”
“And it definitely benefits me now, seeing as there’s a dragon related argument to make.”
“Exactly,” he says, holding the door open for her. She sucks out into the watery sunlight.
“I’ll see you on Sunday,” she says, taking a step backwards, and making finger guns at him.
“Sunday,” he says, and does finger guns back at her, to her surprise. “And I expect a PowerPoint on the dragon thing.”
“Who would I be if I didn’t supply one?” she asks, mocking offense, and clapping a hand over her heart.
“A loser. For sure,” he says. “Bye, Devi.”
“Bye,” she says, and turns away from him, beginning the walk home.
“The final club on the list is orchestra,” Ben says, and Devi sits up quickly, opening her mouth, “which I have already taken the liberty of marking down as yours.”
She lets herself relax. “I really thought you were going to try to steal that from me,” she says, pressing a hand to her chest. “I really thought that was a fight you were going to pick.”
“What were you going to do if I tried to pick it?” he asks, hitting print on the document. The printer behind them whirs to life.
“Kill you,” Devi says plainly, not bothering to embellish. “I would have just straight up killed you.”
“You wouldn’t even give me a chance to argue my case?” he asks, getting up and grabbing the paper off of the printer. She snatches it from his hand as soon as he is within reach, and rubs the warm paper against her face.
“Nope,” she says.
“That’s gross,” Ben tells her, taking the paper from her hands. “You’re getting your germs on our pact.”
“I don’t care, it’s warm, and that makes it worth it,” she says, rolling her eyes at him. He wipes the paper up and down the sleeve of her sweater. “Isn’t this just getting more of my germs on it?”
“It’s getting your face germs off of it,” he says, “I’m willing to split the difference.”
—really, truly laughs—
—and takes the paper from him, clicking her pen and signing on the dotted line that has her name written out underneath it. She passes it to Ben to sign.
He does, and folds up the paper, tucking it into a folder.
She knots her hands together. “Does this mean we just… aren’t going to talk to each other anymore?” she asks, before she can contemplate the consequences.
He frowns, and leans back in his seat. The chair squeaks. “Do you want this to be the last time we talk to each other?” he asks, something vulnerable behind his voice, in his throat. “Because I-I don’t.”
“I don’t either,” she admits, something about his honesty pulling the truth out of her. “I think we’ve… grown, as individuals and as rivals, and I think talking or—or being friends and having a relationship outside of the rivalry is not entirely impossible for us—”
—to her, her words just sound like I miss you, I miss you, I miss you on repeat—
—“and since we’re the only people here that each other knows, it just… makes sense that we would try to be friends.”
“Okay,” Ben says.
Devi furrows her brow. “Okay? You’re just agreeing? I dont have to—to try to convince you, or argue, or write a dissertation?”
“I mean, if you want to, you can,” Ben says, shrugging, “but, I don’t need you to. I want to be your friend—”
—want to sit together at lunch?—
—“I don’t need you to convince me anymore.”
“Okay,” Devi says, smiling wide. It makes her cheeks ache. “I’m glad you’re my friend, Ben.”
His smile matches hers. “I’m glad you’re my friend, Devi.”
“Here,” Devi says, handing him a stack of flashcards. He looks up from his computer, and takes them, looking at her strangely. “Quiz me.”
“You realize I have my own thing going on over here, right?” Ben asks, raising his eyebrows. “You may think you’re guaranteed to be valedictorian, but I’m not willing to go down that easy.”
“Oh, but it’ll be such a disappointment for you to get your hopes up,” she says, sticking her bottom lip out in a faux pout. “It’ll break your poor, little sad boy heart.”
“Like it won’t harm your superiority complex when I beat you for valedictorian.”
“Actually, my superiority complex is going to remain intact because you won’t beat me,” she says, smiling, like she has already won. “I beat you in high school, and I’ll do it again now.”
“Lucky fluke,” he says, and shuffles her flashcards. “If I do this, then you have to help me study for my Euro test on Thursday.”
“Done,” she says, and holds out her hand for him to shake. He takes it—
—her cheeks heat up—
—and shakes her hand once. “But don’t expect me to be nice while I help you. I hate Europe.”
“It’s mostly Ireland,” he says.
“Oh. nevermind, then, I’ll be cool,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “Go, quiz me, I believe in you.”
He finishes shuffling her notecards, then picks one out of the middle, holding it up. “Your handwriting is atrocious,” he says, squinting at it dramatically.
“My handwriting is excellent, you’re just mad that you can’t insult it,” she says, furrowing her brow. “Remember when Mrs Pemberton gave me the best handwriting award three months in a row?”
“Because you cheated and spent like, a million years on every assignment,” Ben says, “I remember doing homework with you that year, it was a nightmare.”
“You loved it,” she says, snappy, but with a shake in her voice that betrays bigger feelings—
—he is right, she did spend a long time doing her homework, and he was there with every assignment—
—“Come on, just read the card.”
He rolls his eyes, but reads the card regardless. “Abiogenesis,” he says, placing the card face down on the table, holding intense eye contact with her. “You aren’t allowed to look down at the card.”
“It's face down, Ben.”
“I don’t know if you have x-ray vision.”
She rolls her eyes, but indulges him and holds eye contact with him. “It's like, a hypothetical situation where life comes from non-life things,” she says.
He picks up the card and reads it aloud. “A hypothetical organic phenomenon by which living organisms are created from nonliving matter,” he says. “So you got it wrong.”
“No, I got it right,” she argues, “I just didn’t say it in technical terms.”
“If you say like on your final, then it’ll be marked wrong.”
“I am not going to say like on the actual test, Ben,” she says, frowning, “this is casual. It's not the Thunderdome yet.”
“Whatever you say, David,” he says, and pulls another card from the stack. “Biosynthesis.”
“That’s when living things make chemical compounds,” she answers.
“So confident in yourself,” Ben says, reading the card, “and, apparently for a good reason.”
“Pellicle,” he reads, and makes a face, “I don’t like the way that word sounds coming out of my mouth.”
“I don’t like the way any word sounds coming out of your mouth,” she says back. “And a pellicle is a really thin membrane thingy that some protozoa have to protect them.”
“Literally what even is this course, David?” he asks, picking up the stack of flashcards and flipping through them quickly, as if he can read each of the vocab words in a fraction of a second.
“Microbiology,” she answers, “and are you going to keep helping me or not?”
“Of course I am, I made a promise—”
—are you going to be my friend forever?—
—of course I am, I promise—
—“Plus, I still want you to help me study for my Euro final.”
“If you want my help, then you have to stop making fun of the courses I’m taking,” she says, “and of the way I answer the questions.”
“You can’t amend your terms after the contract has already been settled,” he says.
“But I can refuse to show up for your Euro review,” she says back, crossing her arms and leaning back in her chair. “You pick.”
He presses his fingers into his brow. “Everyday you test my patience more and more,” he says. “Deal. but no more changing your demands.”
“You aren’t exactly in the negotiator's position, Benjamin.”
He ignores her, and pulls another card from the stack, reading the word off of it.She defines it, and they go back and forth easily, until they have finished the entire stack. He hands it to her, and she takes it, looping a rubber band around it and dropping it into her book bag.
“That went swimmingly after I backed you into a corner and made you be nice to me,” she says, smiling at him.
He rolls his eyes. “As per usual,” he says. “I’ll see you on Tuesday for Euro practice, yeah?” he asks, and part of her, a little bit, thinks that he is offering her an out.
She does not want one, though.
“Of course,” she says, trying and failing not to smile at him, “we shook on it, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, because one of your great and lovable qualities is that you keep your word,” he says, standing up and slinging his backpack over his shoulders.
The jab hurts her more than it should, because he has more reason than anyone to believe that she would go back on her word. The thought of it pricks at her heart, thousands of needle pokes.
“I promise I will be there,” she says, her voice low, serious.
He looks at her strangely, like he is surprised with her sincerity. “Okay,” he says anyway, and nods, once. “Do you want me to walk you back to your dorm?”
“Nah, Keerthi is meeting me for coffee,” she says, nodding awkwardly. “Going back would sort of defeat the purpose of Keerthi waiting in the Starbucks for me—”
“I got it, Devi,” he says, fond, a smile in the shape of a half moon gracing his lips. “Have fun with Keerthi. I’ll see you soon.”
He turns and disappears, ducking out of the student center and disappearing into the sunlight. She tries and fails to pretend that she is not excited to spend more time with Ben.
“You’re a child,” Ben says, following her to the counter. “Like, an actual, literal child. Are you sure you’re mature enough for college?”
“Ben, it’s just Dave and Busters,” she says, “seriously. Plenty of adults eat here when they want a chesap, greasy meal and free entertainment in the form of children crying.”
“Crying children are not entertaining,” Ben says, shaking his head. “They’re loud. And distressing. After a while, they make you want to cry too.”
“How would you ever know that?” Devi asks, making a face.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that crying babies are irritating,” Ben says, “plus, I have been on enough international flights to confirm the hypothesis.”
“Fair enough,” Devi says. The cashier shows up, and takes their orders. When he tells them their total, Ben pulls his card out of his wallet, handing it to the cashier to swipe before Devi can even get her wallet out.
“We’ll call your name when the food is ready. Dont forget your name,” the cashier says, disappearing through the kitchen door.
“Where do you want to—”
“—What the hell was that?” Devi asks, cutting him off. He looks at her strangely, his eyebrows raised.
“What the hell was what?” he asks, bewildered.
“Paying for me,” she snaps, “I’m perfectly capable of paying for myself, Gross. You don’t have to go all chivalry on me.”
“Devi, what the hell are you talking about?” he asks. He stops walking, and turns to look at her, his lips parted—
—she wishes, errant and unwanted, that she could kiss him—
—“he totaled our orders together, it just made sense to pay,” he says, gripping her shoulders gently, making her look at him. “It was not that big of a deal, Devi.”
“I’m going to pay you back,” she says, tugging her phone from her back pocket.
“I dont want you to.”
“I’m going to.”
“No, you aren't,” he says, and the confidence in his voice makes her lift her head up. “I won't take it if you do.”
“How exactly are you going to not take it?” she asks, making a face.
“By sending it back to you,” he says, “or buying you a gift or a book or something with the money instead of keeping it.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she says, her argument fracturing around her. His hands are so warm on her shoulders. “It’s—its the proper thing to do to pay you back.”
“Since when have you ever cared about the proper thing to do?” he asks, and does not wait for an answer. “Plus, I was the one who asked you to come and eat. It’s only fair that I pay.”
“Devi, please,” Ben says, his eyes boring into her—
—they are so blue, so blue, so blue—
—“I promise, it isn't a big deal,” he says. “Plus, I’m stupid rich and you usually love taking advantage of my money.”
She takes a deep breath, and nods. “I guess,” she finally says—
—suddenly, he feels way too close, his fingertips pressing into her like individual firebrands, and he smells perfect, sandalwood and laundry detergent—
—and takes a step back from him. He drops his hands. “Alright. I won’t pay you back. But I’m paying next time!”
“Then we’ll go to Red Lobster,” he jokes, smiling down at her. The cashier from earlier calls his name, and he holds up one hand. “I’ll be right back,” he says, and turns, walking away.
She unlocks her phone, quickly clicking into the group chat.
devi: getting food w ben. he paid. date or not a date
keerthi: where are you eating?
devi: dave n busters. i picked it, he asked me and told me i could pick wherever i wanted to go
fabiola: Normally I would say not a date, but hes a man, so Dave and Busters makes sense for a first date location. So date
devi: your first date with eve was at a taco truck so stop trying to seem pretentious
eleanor: i vote date!!!
aneesa: honestly?? not a date. he would ask more formally if it was imo
aneesa: but he is a weasel so date-not-a-date vibes aren't completely out of the question
aneesa: do you want it to be a date?
devi: not really
rebecca: i know im late to the party but i vote not a date
devi: thank you this is helpful hes coming with the food now gotta go
eleanor: get sooooooooome
keerthi: you aren’t helpful, eleanor
Devi shuts her phone off, and tucks it away in her back pocket, following him to an open table. “Sorry it took so long,” he says, “I had to fight with that cashier to get a cup of mayonnaise for my fries—kept telling me it was gross and that I should just use ketchup.”
“He’s right,” Devi says, unwrapping her sandwich, “it is disgusting. It's a white people condiment.”
“As usual, I have no rebuttal,” Ben says, dipping two fries into the cup of mayo. “Mayonnaise is a white people condiment.”
“Stop calling it mayonnaise,” Devi says, making a face, “call it mayo, like a normal person.”
“It’s my people's condiment, I’ll call it whatever I want,” he says, shrugging.
“I don’t like not having a comeback to that,” Devi says, narrowing her eyes. “Give me a come back for what you just said.”
“Why would I ever do that?”
“Because you adore me,” she says, and he scoffs, laughing.
“I’m not going to give you a comeback, David,” he says, “you’re on your own.”
“I’ll get you back for this.”
“I’m counting on it.”
“Aneesa!” Devi shouts, throwing her arms around Aneesa’s waist, hugging her tight. “What are you doing here, oh my God!”
“Soccer game on Saturday,” she answers, into Devi’s hair. Her arms are wrapped around Devi’s shoulders. Aneesa has always hugged people like that, with her entire body, like it is an act that cannot be done halfway.
“Oh my God, I am so happy to see you,” Devi says, pulling back from the hug. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Keerthi and tolerate Ben, but it’s good to have someone around that isn’t just them.”
“I get it,” Aneesa says, her cheeks lifting with a smile. “I really like my roommate, but we’re together, like, all the time. This trip is a good break from that—plus, I get to see you and Ben!”
“Oh, shit, he’s actually on his way,” Devi says, making a face. “Ugh, no time to have Aneesa all to myself.”
“Aww, I love that I’m a hot commodity this side of the Mississippi,” she says, and toes off her shoes. “Since we’re gonna wait for Ben, you might as well tell me all about Princeton.”
“Only if you tell me about Northeastern as a trade,” Devi says, spinning around her desk chair to face Aneesa, and sitting in it heavily.
They talk for ten minutes, swapping stories about demanding professors and annoying classmates, detailing frat parties and she shenanigans therein. Aneesa is halfway through a story about her first fist fight when Ben shows up.
“Whoa, a rogue Aneesa Qureshi,” he says, pushing Devi’s door open. She smiles at him—
—no matter how many times she sees Ben, it somehow always manages to make her mood lift, her day brighten, and sometimes, her heartbeat speed up—
—“How are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m awesome, and a weekend soccer game,” she says, shrugging. “I wanted to see my favourite tigers.”
“I think you have more Princeton school spirit than Ben does,” Devi says, standing up and pulling on her shoes.
“Excuse me, I have plenty of school spirit,” he says, rolling his eyes and pushing open the door for them, “I’m the only one of the two of us that has actually been to a university football game.”
“Can't believe you’re making the qualifications for school spirit the attendance levels for a sport that I don’t even enjoy,” she says, “if I had time to go to tennis games, I would, but sadly they do not garner the fanfare that football does.”
“You mean you never find out about them until after they’ve been played,” Ben says. Devi elbows him in the ribs as they leave, but says nothing else, because he is right.
“Wait, no one told me what kind of plans I’m crashing,” Aneesa says, falling into step with Ben and Devi. “Because if it’s arson, I’m not wearing the right outfit.”
“Nah, we’re just getting coffee,” Ben says, waving a hand through the air dismissively. “No crimes for today.”
“That’s almost sad,” Aneesa says, following them down the stairs. “Next time, I’ll make sure to wear the right shoes.”
They chat aimlessly on the way to the coffee shop, catching up on the things they have missed the past few months, test grades and ill advised hookups, and reminiscing about long gone high school afternoons.
When they make it to the coffee shop, they send Ben to the counter with their orders, and sit down at a tall table in front of a giant window. New Jersey spills sunlight onto them.
“So, how long have you been dating Ben?” Aneesa asks, linking her hands together in front of her. “Or, I guess, how long have you been crushing on him without telling any of us?”
Devi splutters, her mind spinning. “What?” she asks.
“You lit up like a Christmas tree when you saw him in your dorm, Devi,” Aneesa says, narrowing her eyes, “and you kept sneaking glances at him.”
“I did not,” Devi says, trying her best to look offended. “Wait, what do you mean I keep sneaking glances at him?”
“Like, you look at him in little bursts. Half second sneaky looks every few minutes,” Aneesa explains, gesturing, “it’s like you want to be looking at him, but you don’t know if you have permission to be doing it.”
“If you like him, you should tell him,” Aneesa says. She gets a look on her face, like she has just had an idea, and smirks, leaning forward. “Or, just tell me.”
Devi mind spins, and she spares a glance to Ben—
—he is still at the counter, waiting in line to order, patiently clicking through his phone—
—is this one of the stolen glances that Aneesa was talking about?—
—“I don’t dislike him,” Devi says, slumping down in her seat. “It’s not like—like I have feelings for him, I just… he makes me feel warm. That's the bottom line.”
“If he makes you feel warm, then isn’t that having feelings for him?” Aneesa asks, hushed.
Devi is going to open her mouth to answer, but then Ben appears, three drinks inside of a cardboard carrier, and any argument she is able to come up with dies on her tongue.
She finds out her apartment in New York falls through the day that she graduates from Princeton.
She is not that surprised, really. The landlord did not exactly seem like a good person, and the apartment was horrifically cheap. She was almost expecting to be murdered there, so her landlord going back on the lease is almost the best case scenario.
She finds Ben after the ceremony, her degree tucked into a pocket in her dress and her fingers knotted together nervously.
“Hi,” she says to the smile on his face, “I don’t have anywhere to live.”
The smile falls. “What?” he asks, grabbing her elbow gently—
—“I thought you found an apartment?”
“The landlord called and told me, basically, that I’m shit out of luck,” she says, and covers her face. “God, what am I gonna do, Ben? I couldn’t find anywhere else in my price range and I can't live on campus at Columbia—”
“—Move in with me,” he says, his voice heavy, filled with weight.
She lifts her face from her hands, looking at him. She cannot see an ounce of a lie in his face. “What?” she asks, needing to hear his offer again.
“Move in with me,” he repeats, “I mean, come on—you wont have to worry about rent because my dad is footing the bill since I’m going to Columbia law like he did—”
“—it’s located close to Columbia, there's an extra bedroom that I was just gonna make into an office or-or get a cat and make the spare room the cat's bedroom, but if you’re there… it’s perfect, Devi.”
“Ben, I don’t know about this,” she says, shaking her head. She knows that eventually, her family will come find her—her mom and Kamala and Manish and Pujeetha—and she will have to figure out a way to tell them that she has nowhere to live in New York, and that her only other option may end up being to move in with Ben.
“Devi, it’s perfect,” he says, and grabs her other elbow. “The only thing you’d have to worry about is groceries and cleaning up after yourself and going to class. Everything else would be taken care of.”
“That's—that's too nice,” Devi says, her argument fracturing to pieces around her. “I would have to pay you back, and it’s not fair to you—”
“—My dad is the one paying, and believe me, it’s chump change to him,” Ben says, an edge to his voice that Devi can only read as desperation—
—what is he desperate for?—
—“Devi, I want you to move in with me.”
“Why?” she asks, looking up at him and furrowing her brow. “I dont—I dont understand.”
“I hate living alone, and you’re my friend—at least I like to think you are—and you-you need somewhere to stay, I have a free room, it’s perfect,” he says. “Devi, please, move in with me.”
She can see her cousin behind Ben's shoulder, looking for her, with Pujeetha propped on her hip. Devi takes a deep breath, trying to think of a better argument, of any real cons. She comes up short.
“Okay,” she says, and nods, “okay, I’ll move in with you. I-I want to move in with you.”
“You do?” he asks, his face lighting up in an earth shaking smile. “For real?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do,” she says, “I want to move in with you. But, my family is coming over here, so you need to be cool about this.”
“Got it,” he says, and turns around. “I know how to keep a secret.”
“Maybe there's hope for you, after all.”
“I cannot believe you are moving in with Ben,” Keerthi says, raising her eyebrows, “at least not, like, platonically.”
“What other way is there to move in with someone?” Devi asks, making a face. She is on a video call with Keerthi, who is working in a lab in Connecticut, and she is having a hard time not watching her own facial expressions in the rectangle in the bottom.
“Romantically, of course,” Keerthi says, counting on her fingers as she goes, “sexually, necessity, conveniently—”
“—I’m moving in with Ben because it is a necessary convenience,” she says, cutting Keerthi off.
“No, convenience is more of a New Girl situation. It requires less of a prior relationship,” she says, nodding at herself. “This is definitely a repressed platonic move-in.”
“I think the chemicals you work with are rotting your brain,” Devi says, stomach twisting with nerves—
—lately, the movements of Ben's hands and the tilt of his smile and the sound of his voice and him have been making her delightfully nervous, like the flutters of a crush—
—and the idea that Keerthi can realize that scares her. If it is so easy for her to figure out from so far away, then when will Ben start to realize?
“Nice try, but I’m not handling anything that can corrode my vital organs,” she says, a shit eating grin on her face. “You’re romantically repressed, babe, it’s time you come to accept that.”
“You’re a chemist, not a therapist,” Devi says, “you can’t diagnose me with anything.”
“Anyone that has eyes could tell you’re romantically repressed… and maybe more when it comes to Ben, to be honest. You’re extensively repressed.”
“You’re rude,” Devi says, at a loss for any better comeback. “Truly evil.”
“I’m right, and that bothers you.”
“Stop psychoanalyzing me on my move in day,” she says, pouting. “Just be nice to me.”
“Your hair is gorgeous,” Keerthi says, flashing a peace sign. “And you have great boobs.”
“You have great boobs too, K,” Devi says, giving her a peace sign back. “I have to go, though— Ben will be here any minute with the command hooks, which means my phone call break will be over.”
“Wait, I want to stay on the line, I need to tell Ben that he’s romantically repressed, too,” she says, tapping her hand against her kitchen counter. “Please, this is so important to me.”
“I’ll pass on the message for you,” Devi says.
“No, you won’t,” Keerthi says, “but this is such an important message, he has to hear it.”
“No, I don’t think either of us had to hear it, actually,” Devi says, “I don’t even think you had to think it.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night, D,” Keerthi says. “Love you, though.”
“Love you, too,” she says, “talk soon.”
“Deuces!” Keerthi says, then hangs up.
Devi sets her tablet down on the kitchen counter and stands up, stretching, before grabbing a box up off of the ground. She breaks the tape, and pulls the flaps open. There are dishes inside, and big wine glasses, the size of the ones in Fabiola’s moms cupboard.
“Ben, you are just full of surprises,” she whispers to herself, pulling the glasses from the box and setting them out on the counter. His dishes are plain, white squares with rounded corners, and she thinks of her own dishes, dark orange and heavy.
She tosses the empty box into a corner, and lifts another one. Silverware, wrapped individually. She groans, and tugs at the pieces of bubble wrap, dropping them on the ground.
“Hey, Devi, I—whoa,” he says, stopping short in the entryway, “did you mangle a roll of bubble wrap?”
“No, you wrapped your fucking silverware individually, like a restaurant—what the fuck is wrong with you?” she asks, turning around to lean against the counter.
“I wanted to make sure nothing broke,” he says, tentatively.
“It’s silverware,” she says, bewildered. She swipes the empty box off of the counter, like a cat. “In what world would it break?”
“The world that drunk packing to move Ben was living in,” he says, shrugging. He walks over, and sets the Home Depot bags on the counter, next to the stack of dishes and silverware.
“God, you must be the most ridiculous drunk ever,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I bet you tried to do homework drunk.”
“I wrote the conclusion to an essay absolutely hammered once, and it was better than when I write sober,” he says. He pulls a package of Command hooks out of one of the bags, and passes it to her.
“First of all, I always knew that you were a horrid essay writer,” she says, using the package of Command hooks to point at him, “and second of all, thank you, I really appreciate the purchase.”
“I’m a great essay writer, drunk me is just a phenomenal essay writer. And you're welcome.”
He smiles at her, and the blue-gold happiness in his eyes makes her mind fracture into mirror shards.
“Are—Are we gonna have to hire some big muscle-y dudes to move the couch, or are you actually capable of lifting something heavier than a kitten?” she asks, attempting to chase away any tenderness her heart inadvertently created.
“Rude, first of all,” he says, raising his eyebrows. He cracks his knuckles, and walks past her, into the part of the open space that they decided would be the living room. “Second of all, it’s not me being able to lift a heavy thing that we have to worry about. It’s you.”
“Um, I’ve played harp since I could walk, so lifting and moving heavy things is not going to be difficult for me at all,” she says, slapping the command hooks down on the counter, and moving to stand on the other end of the couch from him. “What’re your credentials, Gross?”
“I bench two-fifty.”
“Two and a half pounds isn’t impressive,” she says, an overexaggerated frown. “I can see why you think it would be, though, considering you have two friends and one of them is your maid.”
“Household manager, David,” he says. “Come on, stop stalling.”
She rolls her eyes, but bends down, bracing her hands on the underneath of the couch. “One, two, three,” she says, lifting in unison with Ben. The couch is a little heavier than she expected it to be, but she lifts it easily.
They walk it over to the wall, pressing it against it evenly, then lowering it slowly. The legs touch the ground with a dull thud.
“Really thought you were gonna buckle,” Ben says, bracing his palms against an armrest. “Like, for real. I was ready for game over and a lost security deposit.”
“Really glad the amount of faith we have in each other is this even,” she says, “because I was ready for you to pass out as soon as you picked the couch up.”
“You just want to be able to perform CPR on me,” he says, smirking and waggling his eyebrows, “you wanted some mouth to mouth action.”
“You’re disgusting,” she says, matter of factly, “revolting.”
“And you’re living with me, so you’re disgusting by association.”
“Oh, God,” she says, making a face, “I have to go take a shower now.”
“Try not to spread your Ben grossness while I’m gone,” she says, pointing at him and backing out of the room. “I’m not afraid to mop the walls, Benjamin.”
“Oh, I’m gonna touch everything,” he says, swiping a hand over the back of the couch, “and I’m gonna start with your command hooks.”
“God help me,” she says, but leaves the room laughing, regardless.
“So,” Ben says, filling Devi’s wine glass with champagne, “what do you think your favourite part of living with me will be?”
“Hmm,” Devi says, pretending to consider it. She takes a sip of the champagne; the taste of it zips down her spine. “Is it too soon to say that I hate all of it?”
“Just a little,” Ben says, sipping from his glass. “God, we used to talk about doing this all the time when we were kids.”
The reference to the past—
—shocks her, and she squeezes the stem of her wine glass, then sets it down.
He is not lying; they did talk about it all the time. They swore that they would live in a treehouse or a studio apartment or a mansion somewhere in Italy—
—and all of the conditions of each of their homes—
—I don’t want my parents to be able to stay—
—I want a window that’s actually a fish tank—
—a firepit inside of the kitchen to make smores—
—an elevator with a jukebox inside of it—
—a pet alligator and a pool for him to live in—
—and she never, not in a million years, expected all of their shared daydreams to come back together after a lifetime of separation to culminate in a two bedroom apartment in the city and plans to get a cat.
“God, I know,” she says, shaking her head, “I think I still have the floorplan somewhere in my room at home.”
“For the mansion we designed?” he asks, sipping his champagne again—
—he holds his wine glass perfectly, delicately, like he is holding something made of air—
—Devi wonders, just a little bit, if he would hold her like that—
—and shaking his head. “We could’ve put the Winchester mystery house to shame if our dream was ever realized.”
“I think seeing the plans alone would be enough to make Sarah Winchester’s ghost faint in fear,” Devi says.
“How many doors did we have that just lead directly to walls?”
“At least twelve,” Devi says, nodding her head. “Majour foresight on our part.”
“If we designed a house now, though?” Ben starts, raising his eyebrows. “It would be amazing. We’d blow ‘em all away with our architectural know how.”
Devi swallows the last of her champagne, and pours herself another class, taking a small sip. She has an inexplicable desire to rummage through the fridge for raspberries to drop in her glass, even though she knows the only things in there are a bottle of ketchup and half-empty carton of orange juice.
“Oh, without a doubt,” she says, “that's obviously what my life's work has been leading up to. A spite mansion.”
“It’ll be the talk of the country club,” Ben says. Devi rolls her eyes.
“Country clubs are awful.”
“I'm going to bring you to one, and you’re going to drink wine and eat crab that will make you rethink your entire life,” Ben tells her, and for reasons inexplicable, she believes him.
“If you say so,” Devi says, circling her index finger around the rim of her wine glass.
“Do you remember,” Ben says, catching her eye. He looks just a little far away, like he is somewhere else. “When we agreed to get married?”
She opens her mouth, then closes it, watching him as he comes back to himself. She had thought he had long forgotten it, like all their other childhood promises—
—birthday parties and piggyback rides and never-to-be-achieved sleepovers—
—and it should mean nothing to her that he remembers, should just be a childhood agreement that began and ended in their imaginations. But, for some reason, it makes her face feel hot and her arms feel heavy.
“I do,” she says, swallowing a gulp of champagne, desperate and nervous. “At twenty-eight—God, we were stupid.”
“I think about it sometimes,” he says, ignoring her remark, high colour in his cheeks.
“Think about what?”
“What it would be like.” He twirls his wine glass. “To be married to each other. To you.”
Her blush starts in her scalp. “Really?” she asks, and watches him nod. She feels flighty and nervous, her stomach filled with sparks, her blood bubbling like the champagne.
Something heady and reckless and greedy takes hold of her. “What is it like?” she asks. “When—when you think about it? What is being married to me like?”
He looks at her perfectly, his face filled with sunshine. “It’s good,” he says, nodding, “I mean, I-I know it would probably never happen—”
—the probably sets her heart on fire—
—the implication of a chance—
“—but it's just… it's good, thinking about it. Making a home with you.” He sips his champagne again, and Devi can see that his hands are shaking. “Being with you.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes,” he says, instantly, without hesitation.
She swirls the champagne around in her glass. “What kind of husband do you make?”
He chuckles, a noise low in his throat. “I like to think I’m a good one.”
“If—if we kept the pact, and got married in a few years,” she asks, “what kind of a husband would you be?”
His lips part, and she feels as though he is looking through her, trying to see inside of her, to figure her out and piece together everything she has ever wanted from a husband—
—from him, if she got brave, got lucky—
—and he rests his hands against the countertop. “I would kiss you goodnight, every night,” he says. Her heart flutters. “And—and I would hold your hand, and I would listen to you talk about anything and everything, because everything you say is interesting to me, even when it’s about the particulars of hemoglobin or—or why Kajol is a way better actress than Shah Rukh Khan could ever hope to be as an actor. And if I came home and saw my favourite dessert in the fridge, I would wait for you to get back, too, so we could share it.”
She wants to say something meaningful—
—thank you, or you are amazing, or I want that, I want that badly, so badly that it hurts—
—but instead, she blinks twice, whispering, “do you really mean that?”
“Of course I do,” he tells her, and tilts forward for just a moment, like he is intending to say something else.
A police siren wails outside, echoing through the open living room window; Devi jumps, shouting—
—a few years ago, this would have given her flashbacks, would have made her dream of her dad dying, collapsing and clutching his chest, of her amma performing CPR and of an orchestral arrangement that she will never be able to listen to again—
—but now, the unexpectedly noise only startles her for being unexpected—
—then leaning against the countertop, hanging her head in embarrassment. “I’m jumpy when I’m tipsy,” she says, shaking her head, “literally, all it takes is a single sip of anything. It can be four proof, even, and if a balloon pops? I scream.”
“God, you’re like a cat,” he says, smiling at her, “do I need to take the wine glass away from you before you slowly push it off of the counter?”
“No,” she says, rolling her eyes, “I think we’re secure on that front.”
“Good,” he replies, then pulls his phone out of his pocket. It clicks when he puts in his passcode, unlocking it, and she rolls her eyes; Ben is probably the only person under thirty that leaves his ringer on, all the time. “Speaking of cats, I was looking on an adoption website, and I found probably sixty favourable candidates.”
“Show me the kitties,” Devi says, holding her hands out and making a grabbing motion. He flips through pictures—
—this cat is named Felony, Ben!—
—and she almost—
—forgets about all of his promises.
“You can use the council for more than relationship drama,” Rebecca says, yawning and stretching in her square of the video call. “You do know that, right?”
“I don’t have relationship drama,” Devi says, “I have… Ben drama.”
“Is that not the same thing?” Keerthi asks.
“Keerthi, I have a question,” Eleanor asks, “is your lab coat for function or style?”
“Function, I’m a chemist,” Keerthi says. “Is the shirtless man in the background for function or style?”
“Style, I’m a girlfriend,” Eleanor says. She turns around, and says, “Paxton, come say hi to the council.”
Paxton covers his chest with a blanket, and tilts down. He has a sorry looking beard. “Hi, council,” he says. “Rebecca, you owe me twenty-four dollars.”
“I gave you that Ziploc baggie of quarters a week ago,” Rebecca says, “if you lost it, that’s on you.”
“I thought we agreed any money owed had to be paid back in real cash.”
“Anything over twenty-five has to be paid back in real cash,” Rebecca says, grinning, “twenty-four is less than twenty-five. As you should know, since you’re a teacher.”
“I do know that,” he says, shaking his head. Eleanor snickers. “I want to amend these conditions.”
“It’ll have to be at a later date, merman,” Rebecca says, “council comes first.”
“Before your family?” Paxton asks, an overexaggerated frown on his face. He puts a hand to his chest, over the blanket, like she has wounded him.
“When that family is you? Absolutely,” Rebecca says. “Now, shoo.”
“Rude,” he says, “I wish you would let me join these meetings. I am a valuable asset on the male perspective.”
“Submit an application to www.councilofladies1.com,” Eleanor tells him. She tilts her head back, puckering her lips for a kiss. Paxton obliges, then waves to the camera, disappearing out of frame.
“He’s gonna submit an application,” Keerthi says, “isn’t he?”
“Could honestly go either way,” Eleanor answers, shrugging. “Back on topic, though. Devi, what’s your Ben drama?”
“We were reminiscing about elementary school and when we were actually friends and we remembered that we made a marriage pact when we were kids and—”
—“Oh lord, she got married,” Aneesa says, and puts her head in her hands, shaking her head.
“No, I didn’t get married,” Devi says, “we were just champagne drunk—which feels like being carbonated, by the way—and we kind of just… talked about what it would be like to be married. And it was nice.”
“What kind of nice?”
“Cozy nice,” Devi says, “like being held, verbally.”
“Oh, you like the boy,” Rebecca says.
“God, this council does not pass the Bechdel test, Jesus Christ,” Fabiola says, pinching her brow.
“One day,” Keerthi says, sighing.
“Okay, wait, why is this Ben drama?” Aneesa asks. “That sounds like you just had a nice chat about your childhoods and stuff. I don’t get how this could be drama.”
“It’s drama because I think I might be into him,” Devi hisses, “like, for real.”
“Yes!” Keerthi shouts, standing up and dancing around the room. “This is the best day!”
“I hate you,” Devi says.
“I love me, and I love being right, oh, God bless,” Keerthi says, spinning around. “I told you that you were romantically repressing yourself, and now here you are, admitting it.”
“I’m not admitting it,” Devi says, pinching the skin on her elbow. “I’m just—thinking that I might be more interested in him than I thought I was.”
“Do you think he’s interested in you?” Eleanor asks, setting her laptop down on the coffee table. She taps her hand on her lap a few times, making kiss noises, until Brighton hops into her lap.
“I don’t know,” Devi says, shrugging, “I mean, we were both kinda drunk, but he didn’t sound completely repulsed by the idea.”
“I mean, if he was drunk, he’d probably be more repulsed than normal,” Eleanor says, “I don’t think I get less repulsed by things that I usually find repulsive just because I’m drunk.”
“That’s true,” Keerthi says, nodding. “If he found being married to you insufferable, then he would’ve changed the subject. Or just thrown up.”
“Ugh,” Rebecca says, wrinkling her nose, “I hate pukers.”
“Yeah, can’t say I’m a fan, either,” Keerthi says. “I love my friends, but y’all are on your own if you start puking.”
“And I respect that,” Rebecca says. “That’s what we need more of in the council. Individual morals and values.”
Keerthi and Rebecca talk back and forth, and Devi picks at the thread on her bedspread. It is hard, she thinks, to divide her feelings about missing Ben for so long to the sudden happiness that comes with finally having him again—
—but it is different from being best friends in elementary school, carefree and young and wearing scraped knees—
—because now he knows that she is capable of being mean to him, of hurting him, of leaving him behind at a moments notice, and she knows that everything she did to him from his thirteenth birthday onward—
—fighting and shouting and insulting and pretending like their childhoods meant nothing—
—is going to follow them around forever.
“What do I do now that I like him and he doesn’t like me?” Devi asks, and everyone on the video call falls silent, staring at her.
“Just… be cool, Devi,” Aneesa says, leaning towards the camera. Her hair is starting to get long again, and is curling loosely at the ends. “I know it’s really hard, especially if you think he isn’t interested in you, but I believe that you can be cool about this if you really want to.”
“You guys really think I can be cool?” Devi asks, not really believing it—
—when has she ever managed to be cool?—
—“It’s not like I’m exactly known for being chill under pressure.”
“You can do it,” Rebecca says, “I believe in you.”
“Yeah, you handled him really well through college,” Keerthi says.
“Being cool is totally a possibility,” Eleanor tells her, waving a hand through the air.
“Yeah,” Devi says, giddy excitement rushing through her. “Yeah, maybe it is.”
Devi never should have thought that it would be a possibility.
She manages for a few weeks, is friendly with him, watching TV and sharing dinners and making fun of the amount of time he spends on his hair in the morning.
But, it all implodes when he brings home a girl for the first time.
Devi is already asleep when he brings her home, but she is up early in the morning, and runs into her in the hallway as she is leaving. Devi can see her pantyhose hanging out of her purse.
“Oh, hi,” the girl says, and makes a face, “please tell me you aren’t Ben's girlfriend.”
“You got lucky,” Devi says, nodding awkwardly, “I’m just his roommate.”
“Right,” she says. “Is there anything I should know about him? Like, daddy issues or past felonies?”
“He’s—he’s a Columbia law school student, I think felonies would sort of disqualify him from that program,” Devi says, making a face.
“Right, right. So, he’s basically perfect?”
Devi scoffs, and rolls her eyes—
—do you ever think about what it would be like to be married to me?—
—“I wouldn’t go that far,” she says, “he takes forever on his hair in the morning and he uses up all the hot water, like, four days a week out of seven, and he is useless when you need a spider killed.”
“That's kind of a lot,” the girl says. She rubs the heel of her palm over her forehead, and groans, long and drawn out. “Just, tell him to call me. It’s Harper. I left a note on his nightstand.”
“Right,” Devi says, and nods her head in the direction of their entryway, “the front door is that way.”
“Thanks, babes,” Harper says, and blows her a kiss. Devi manages not to grimace until she hears the front door open and close.
“Babes, yuck,” she says, sticking her tongue out and shuffling to the kitchen. She rinses out the coffee pot, then puts it back in the cradle and fills a coffee filter with grounds.
She is leaning against the counter, waiting for the coffee to brew when Ben walks in. His hair is mussed, sticking up in all directions, and she tries to forget that Harper is likely the cause of that.
“Making coffee?” he asks, rubbing his eyes.
“Doing Harper?” she asks, before she can stop herself.
Ben makes a face, and scratches at his hairline. “Not—not currently,” he says, “but I take it you met her?”
“I did,” Devi says, nodding. The coffee maker beeps, and she grabs the pot, pouring some into her coffee cup, and setting the pot back in the cradle. “She's a charmer. She wants you to call her.”
“Huh,” is all he says. He pours his own cup of coffee.
“Does that mean you will or won’t call her?” Devi asks, taking a sip of the coffee. It is too bitter; her mind is all over the place, and she forgot to add milk and sugar. “Because, gonna be honest, I would like a heads up this time.”
“What?” he says. “Why do you sound so mad?”
She rolls her eyes. The back of her ears are beginning to get hot, and she grips her coffee mug tighter. “I mean, I’d like to know in advance when I’m gonna run into a—a sorority bimbo with her underwear in her purse.”
“She had her underwear in her purse?”
“Her pantyhose but—same difference,” Devi says. She sets her coffee cup down, before she drops it or accidentally spills it. “My point is, please, let me know when you’re going to entertain some rando.”
“Where is this coming from?” he asks, looking at her incredulously. “I’m sorry you didn’t like Harper, but you’re getting really mad, and I’m not really sure where its coming from.”
“Its coming from the land of I dont want to have to tell randos that I’m not your girlfriend every fucking morning!” she shouts, throwing her hands in the air. “I mean, God forbid I have a normal morning in my own home.”
“Devi, this has literally only happened once,” he says, his voice entirely too even, too composed—
—why does he always have to be such a lawyer, all the time?—
—and he sets his coffee cup on the counter, sticking his hands in the pockets of his bathrobe. “You’re overreacting over a one time thing.”
She scoffs. “I’ll show you overreacting,” she says. Before she can really think it through, can really realize that it is a bad idea, she has grabbed his coffee cup, walking into the living room, and tosses it out of the open window. It falls the three stories to the ground, and shatters on the alley, ceramic shards flying in every direction. “That is overreacting.”
Ben is staring at her, his mouth hanging open, eyes wide. He closes his mouth, then opens it again. “Yeah,” he says, his voice low, dangerously even, “can’t really argue with that.” He turns on his heel, and disappears into the hallway. She hears his bedroom door slam.
It takes her fifteen more minutes to realize that throwing his coffee cup out the window was a bad idea, and by the time she does, Ben has already left the apartment without bothering to tell her where he is going.
“Hey,” she says, walking out of her bedroom and lingering awkwardly in the end of the hallway. “Can we talk?”
Ben sighs, but closes his laptop. “About?” he asks, looking at her—
—that anger behind his eyes has not yet faded in the weeks since she threw his coffee cup out of her window—
—she supposes it is fair, though, seeing as she has not exactly apologized—
—up and down, like she is a threat.
“I talked to Eleanor, and she and Paxton are planning to move back to the city,” Devi says, “so, I figured I would move in with them.”
“Fine,” Ben says, “you didn’t have to sign a lease to move in here, so I don’t know why you’re telling me—”
“—I’m sorry,” she blurts, dropping her hands. She scrubs them up and down her thighs awkwardly.
“For?” he prompts, because he has never really let her off easy.
“Throwing your coffee cup out of the window,” she says, “and—and overreacting about Harper.”
“Thank you,” he says, and flashes her a timid smile. They are quiet for a moment, before Ben kicks his lips and says, “do you still want to move in with Eleanor?”
She does not think about it, because if she thinks about it, she will want to answer honestly. “Yes,” she says, “so I—I figured we should keep our champagne promise.”
“Oh, naturally,” Ben says, setting his laptop aside and standing up. “I have some in the back of the fridge.”
“When did you buy champagne?” Devi asks, furrowing her brow. She walks into the kitchen and grabs two wine glasses from one of the cabinets, setting them on the center island.
“I like to be prepared,” he says, shrugging. “I mean, I was gonna drink it by myself if you ever left, but since you’ve apologized, I wanna drink it with you.”
“Aww, that was almost nice,” Devi says. He twists off the top to the champagne bottle, and she rolls her eyes. “It's a twist off, of course you get the cheap shit.”
“Actually, my coworkers get the cheap shit and give it to me,” he says, shrugging, “it was my birthday gift from the office.”
“A bunch of snotty lawyers cheaped out on a gift for the founder's son?” Devi asks, holding the wine glass out to him for him to fill up. He does, and she takes a sip.
She does not think she will ever really get used to the taste of champagne, all soft bubbles and an almost citrus flavour. She cannot decide if she likes it or not.
“They probably think I’ve never had cheap champagne,” Ben says, shrugging, “as if I didn’t go on regular benders in college.”
Devi furrows her brow. “You didn’t,” she says, sipping the champagne again, “you stayed inside and studied and had a beer once a week after you turned twenty-one.”
“You didn’t hang out with me every weekend,” Ben says, defensive, “one time I woke up in a Jell-O filled kiddie pool on the third floor of a frat house.”
“No, you didn’t,” Devi says, refusing to believe him, “I think you’re stealing a story from Trent in community college to try and make yourself sound cool.”
“Y’know, you never did make me that PowerPoint about dragons,” Ben says, changing the subject, effectively telling her that she is right without having to actually admit it.
“I knew I was right,” she says, and shrugs, “I didn’t really need to prove it to you.”
“That is the least Devi thing I have ever heard in my entire life,” Ben says, offering her more champagne when he sees that her glass is empty, “like, I would believe a clandestine hookup in a Columbia med school closet before I would ever believe that you didn’t need to prove to me that you were right about something.”
“Well, believe it—”
“—that you wore shoes in your house before I would ever believe—”
“—alright fine!” she admits, groaning. “I got busy with Keerthi, and prepping for classes, and realizing I actually kind of like being a vegetarian and preparing a formal argument about dragons kind of slipped my mind.”
“I’ve never been more insulted in my life,” Ben says, shaking his head and sipping the champagne.
“Not even when I threw your coffee cup out a window?” she asks, and holds her hand up, counting on it. “Or said I wished nazis would kill you? Oh! What about when I tried to set you on fire in the eighth grade?”
“You tried to set me on fire in the eighth grade?” Ben asks, straightening up and furrowing his brow. “When did you try to set me on fire?”
“In the eighth grade?” She says, like a question, and cringes.
“I meant more specifically,” Ben says, “and I would also like to tack on a why.”
“It was partially a dare and partially because I wanted to see if it would work, but the lighter wouldn’t light,” Devi says, “stupid Zippo didn’t have any lighter fluid in it.”
“You are a monster,” Ben says, looking at her with just enough laughter in his eyes to calm her worry that he would hate her. “Like, real life nightmare. IT clown nightmare.”
“I wasn’t actually gonna do it,” she explains, quickly, “if it had lit, then I would’ve turned away from you like, right away.”
“Don’t tell me anymore,” he says, waving his hands, “I don’t want to know anything else about my apparent near death experience.”
“I mean, that’s really where the details end, so I think you’re in the clear on that end,” Devi says. She swallows the last of her champagne, then holds out her glass for him to refill. “God, I’m gonna miss this,” she says, without really thinking about it.
He makes a strange face, then sets the bottle back down. “Miss what?” he asks, swirling the champagne in his glass. “Free champagne?”
“You. Us. Spending time together,” she admits, champagne bubbly, her tongue loosened. “Being around you is nice.”
“It doesn’t have to end,” he argues, knitting his brows together. “You know that, right?”
She scoffs, rolling her eyes. “Literally, why would you want me to stay?”
“First of all, that's not how you use the word literally,” he says, and sips his champagne, then sets the glass back down. “And, I don’t know—”
He ignores her. “I just like spending time with you,” he says, “and, barring the coffee cup incident—which you have apologized for—you haven’t really done anything to make me not want to live with you.”
“So stealing pairs of your underwear and strands of your hair wasn't crossing the line?” she jokes.
“Nah, I’m cool with that, I get that you have needs for your shrine.”
“Actually, they were for a voodoo doll,” she says, and shrugs, “but, whatever you say.”
“So,” he says, like he is going to change the topic. She looks back at his eyes again. “Will you stay?”
She thinks about it, considering what it is like to drink coffee with him in the morning and stay up late watching movies, playing board games. Thinks about fighting over their tastes in music—
—Hozier is infinitely better than Moyse, Ben—
—maybe to the untrained ear—
—and sharing popcorn. Thinks of stealing glances and reading over his shoulder and watching his hands move across a keyboard as he types.
“Yeah,” she says, inclining her head and smelling her champagne, “yeah, I’ll stay.”
He holds up his glass. “I’ll cheers to that,” he whispers, his voice deep, husky almost. She raises her own glass, and taps it against his slowly, carefully.
He is in his final year of law school when he brings up their pact again.
She is lying along the length of the couch, flipping through channels while he reads a book in the easy chair. Heathcliff is asleep on her chest.
“Hey, Devi,” he says, not looking up from his book. She flicks her eyes to him for just a moment, then back to the TV.
“Would you want to go out?” he asks, and she freezes. There is a tennis match playing on the TV, and she stares at it, watching the ball with her eyes for as long as she thinks she can get away with it.
“What?” she asks, her muscles unlocking. She hits mute on the remote, then sits up, looking him in the face. He is looking at his book with too much focus, and his face is pink. “Where did that come from, I—Ben, what?”
“I was just—just thinking that we made a pact, and we’re coming up on twenty-eight sooner rather than later—”
“—You want to date me because of the pact?” Devi asks, incredulous. “That is so—you want to date me out of obligation, for a promise we made when we were little kids—”
“—No, not just that,” he says, interrupting her. Her argument dissolves on her tongue. “I-I want to try, with you. I’ve always… wondered, sort of, what it would be like to-to be with you.”
“You’ve wondered?” she asks, dumbstruck.
“I told you that I—I thought about what it would be like to be married to you,” he says, and finally—
—looks up from his book. “That—That hasn’t gone away.”
“No,” he says, shaking his head, “it hasn’t. And I—I would like to date you.”
“I don’t know—”
“—I would have to—”
“—Just hear me out,” Ben says, shutting his book and tossing it onto the coffee table. “Please?”
She opens her mouth, then closes it, losing track of her argument like thread unraveling—
—she wants him to make his argument, more than anything, want him to lay out the details and give her a list of reasons to be with him that she cannot brush aside, or ignore—
—but, deep down, she does not think she deserves it—
—deserves them to keep their promises, no matter how ridiculous—
—and if she lets him, it would be unfair—
—but she has never been the kind of person that denies herself what she wants—
—“Okay,” she says, nodding. She drops a hand onto Heathcliff's back, feeling it rise and fall every time he takes a breath in and lets it out. “Okay. Make your case, please… counselour,” she says, then cringes at herself. “Sorry, it's just… kind of tense in here.”
He ignores her. “We already live together,” he says, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, “we know we can get along while we live together—we’ve done it for three years, and we haven’t killed each other—plus, we know the others routine, and we have a shower schedule figured out that works amazingly for us.”
“That is true, the shower schedule is good.”
“I know you’re favourite foods, and—and your favourite restaurants and movies and I know that you know mine,” he says, then falters. He rubs the palm of one hand over his stubble. “And I—I think you’re beautiful. I want to date you, and if we’re happy, and decide to keep the pact,then that—that would be good. Plus, what kind of lawyer would I be if I didn’t keep the promises that I make?”
She resists the urge to say a normal one. “So you—you want to date on kind of… a trial basis?” she asks. “Sort of no strings?”
“I—I would have to think about it,” she says, wrapping her arms around herself, “this isn’t exactly what I was expecting when you said hey, Devi,” she says, doing a cheap imitation of him, voice pitched as deep as she can make it go.
“That is not what I sound like.”
“Yes it is,” she says, in the same voice from earlier. “Give me ten thousand dollars or she dies.”
Ben laughs, head thrown back. “Who is the she that you’re killing?” she asks.
“I don’t know, Jennifer Aniston?” Devi suggests, shrugging.
“You would never.”
“I know,” she admits, looking down at the floor. “Seriously, Ben. I’m gonna have to think about it.”
“Okay,” he says, and nods, once. “Take your time. Preferably less than a year, though. I know you procrastinate.”
“Would you wait a year?” she asks, half joking.
His eyes say yes. “I would really rather not answer that,” he finally says, his mouth slack—
—he has started looking at her like that, slack jawed and wide eyed, almost like he wants her, is pining for her—
—and his hands hanging between his legs.
She smiles. “I’ll let you off the hook this time,” she says, standing up and stretching. She can feel Ben's eyes on her, on the sliver of skin where her shirt rides up and exposes the plane of her back. Her mind is spinning. She starts to walk off to her room, tread light, easy.
“Where are you going?” Ben asks, his voice floating in from the living room. She hears Heathcliff jump off of the couch.
“To my room,” she answers, without looking, “to think.”
She can almost hear him smiling.
“Usually, I think your schemes and plans with Ben aren’t that insane,” Rebecca says, making a face, “but this one is definitely insane. Like, dowry with cows and goats and stuff insane.”
“I think it's a great idea,” Eleanor says, “sounds romantic.”
“In what world is that romantic?” Fabiola asks, frowning. “He said they should get married because they agreed to it when they were six—”
“That is not what he said, and even if it was, it's not all he said,” Devi argues, “if it was all he said, I wouldn’t be considering it, but—he asked me out, he-he sounded excited at the prospect of going out with me.”
“I think you should do it,” Eleanor says, nodding. “Listen, its Ben—”
“Yeah, that's why she shouldn’t do it,” Keerthi says, “I mean, how many times did this boy come to our dorm and attempt to eat us out of house and home?”
“He always Venmoed me to make up for it,” Devi says.
“You never told me that!” Keerthi shouts, wide eyed and open mouthed at the camera. “What did you do with the money?”
“Bought more groceries,” Devi says.
Keerthi’s frown drops. “Oh. okay.”
“I like Ben,” Devi says, changing the topic. “I-I like him.”
“Yeah, we covered that,” Aneesa says, “we actually covered that a few times, I think.”
“And that doesn’t mean you should go for this insane dating proposal,” Fabiola argues.
“I think he really likes her,” Eleanor says, and shrugs.
“Actually, I’m amending my vote,” Rebecca says, “I think so too.”
“What?” Fabiola asks, making a face. “Come one, Becca. Power in numbers, we can’t lose you.”
“The only person who knows what Ben actually said, like, word for word, is Devi,” Rebecca says, nodding towards Devi’s square on the video call, “and she seems to think that this is a good idea. She wouldn’t if he said something bad, or shady.”
“That’s my point!” Eleanor says, “she wouldn’t have called the meeting and definitely wouldn’t be considering it if he was an undercover creep.”
“I say we take it to a vote,” Fabiola says, “and as per council rules, since Devi is the person who raised the issue, she does not get to vote on it.”
“One of these days I’ll get that rules overturned,” Devi mutters, crossing her arms and pouting. “Fabiola, take role call.”
“As the brains, I’m marking myself down for a nay vote,” she says, writing a tally on her notepad. “Distraction?”
“Nay,” Keerthi says, “sorry, Devi. Currently anti-Ben.”
Devi flips off the screen.
“Spy?” Fabiola asks, ignoring her.
“Finally, the muscle.”
“Yea,” Aneesa says. Keerthi gasps.
“Tumhaaree himmat kaise huee!” Keerthi shouts.
“Yah ho jaana chaahie tha,” Aneesa says, shrugging. “Ben is my best friend—I know him. He wouldn’t ask her out unless he really wanted to. Vaada.”
Keerthi makes a face, then throws up her hands. “Fine, I fold. Fab, change my vote to yea.”
“Jesus Christ,” Fabiola whispers, but changes the vote regardless. “Four yeas, one nay. That's a majority.”
“Fabiola, stop sounding so bummed out, you know the votes mean nothing and that Devi is just gonna do whatever it is that she wants to do,” Rebecca says, “we could have all voted no and she would still do it regardless.”
“Wait, how do you know I’m going to do it now?” Devi asks, knitting her eyebrows together.
“Because you’re smiling,” Rebecca says.
“I am?” Devi asks, placing a hand to her lips subconsciously.
“Big time, D,” Keerthi says, nodding. “Like, ultimate happiness smiling.”
“Oh,” Devi says, tracing the outline of her lips with the tips of her fingers, “I guess I am.”
“She’s gonna do it,” Rebecca says.
“She’s so gonna do it,” Aneesa says, beaming and clapping her hands.
Devi feels giddy, filled with carbonation. “Yeah. I guess I am.”
“You still aren’t going to tell me where we’re going?” Ben asks, his hand in hers—
—she had asked him out on a date as soon as she hit the hang up button on council video call, and he had smiled at her so brightly that all of her doubts disappeared—
—and his voice light. “You know I like to peruse the menu before I go to a new restaurant.”
“What if I wanted to order for you?” Devi says, looking at him with eyebrows raised.
He looks at her strangely. “Do you?”
“No,” she says, and tugs him inside of the restaurant. He stumbles, but rights himself without letting go of her hand. “But, I cannot recommend the spaghetti enough.”
“Right, I’ll keep that in mind,” he says.
She gives her name to the hostess, who leads them to a booth in the back of the restaurant. She sets two menus on the table, takes their drink order, and disappears.
“When have you ever been here to be able to confidently recommend the spaghetti to me?” Ben asks, flicking his menu open. His eyes disappear behind the lamination.
“I order spaghetti and an order of breadsticks for my lunch every Friday,” Devi says, shrugging, “it’s my reward for making it through another week of med school.”
“So this is where you get the spaghetti that makes you so happy,” Ben says, sighing. He looks at her over the top of his menu, “and so murderous when I accidentally eat the leftovers.”
“Now you understand the emotional value of pasta,” Devi says, smiling. He blows her a kiss, and it makes her heart flip in her chest.
“So, if I get, say… a pizza, will that make the date end early?” he asks, closing his menu and setting it down on the table.
“No, but you definitely won't get lucky,” Devi says. Ben laughs, tossing his head back—
—she has only ever seen him laugh like that with her—
—“You laugh, but I have never been more serious about anything in my life.”
“It’s the first date, Devi,” Ben says, “I am not going to get lucky regardless of what I do.”
“Prude,” Devi teases, just in time for the waitress to show up, setting their drinks on the table.
She gives them a strange look, and Devi makes a face at Ben across the table, unable to stop herself. “Um, hi,” the waitress says, looking between the two of the skeptically, almost annoyed. Devi cannot blame her. “I’m Bianca, I’ll be your waitress today. Can I get anything started for you guys… maybe couples therapy?”
Devi snickers, and Ben blushes a violent shade of red. “No, no its okay, Bianca, he’s been my best friend for years, I’m just messing with him,” Devi says. Bianca does not look like she believes her, but Devi decides she does not care either way. “I’ll have the spaghetti and an order of breadsticks, please.”
“She’s telling the truth, I promise,” Ben says to Bianca. “And I’ll have the same.”
Bianca scribbles their orders down onto a notepad, gives Ben a sympathetic look, then walks off. Ben puts his face in his hands. “Oh, God, she hated us,” Ben says, into the palm of his hands. “She’s gonna spit in our food.”
“Nah, she won’t, the owner likes me.”
“You have an in with the owner?” Ben asks, raising his eyebrows. “With Carlo himself?”
“Yep,” Devi says, smug, “I won the boss battle and now Carlo is in my back pocket.”
“What boss battle was there?” Ben asks, furrowing his brow.
Devi takes a sip of her cherry Coke. “Bianca,” she answers, shrugging. “No, I think it’s just because I come in here all the time, and I keep steering hungry med school kids in this direction. I’m Carlo’s whole advertising department.”
“That does sound very Devi of you,” Ben says, then falls quiet, staring at his hands. “You told Bianca that I’ve been your best friend for years.”
She furrows her brow. “Yeah?” she answers, like a question. She twists the chain of her necklace around her finger. “I just—y’know, we’re really close now, and we were when we were kids, so I just… it feels right to call you my best friend.”
“I like hearing you call me that,” he says, and reaches across the table, grabbing her hand. “I missed it.”
Her stomach fills with emotion. “You missed having me call you my best friend?”
He smiles. “Yeah,” he says, “you used to go around telling anyone that would listen. This is Ben and he is my best friend.”
“God, I did, didn’t I?” she says, covering her eyes with the hand he isn’t holding onto—
—he is circling his fingers over the inside of her palm, and it is making her mind fray at the edges—
—“that must have been so embarrassing for you.”
“No, not really,” he answers. She feels the lift of his hand when he shrugs. “I liked it.”
“Really?” Devi asks, dropping her hand. “So, like, if I turned to the next table and told them you’re my best friend, and that I’m on my first date with you…?”
He turns red. “I don’t know how much I would enjoy that, if I’m being truthful,” he answers, and presses his fingernails into her palm, for emphasis. “Maybe once we leave, you can tell some randoms on the street.”
She smiles. “Gladly,” she says, “any opportunity to make you like me more.”
“Can never have enough of that,” he says, grinning at her. “Especially when you’re barely tolerable.” He says barely tolerable with a British accent, like Mr Darcy.
“You just Elizabeth Bennett-ed me,” she says, putting a hand to her chest in mock offence. “”I’m almost insulted.”
“What can I do to make it up?”
“You can host my sister at your friends house, and later me when she falls ill, then fall in love with me slowly, insult me a few times, then insult me and my family big time when you propose. You can leave town after I reject you—for insulting me and ruining the happiness of a most beloved sister—but write me a really long letter apologizing for all of it, thus making me see you in a new light, and then eventually falling in love with you for sure when you save my littlest sister from social ruin,” she says, shrugging, “does that work?”
He looks at her with his eyebrows raised, his mouth parted. “Did you just summarize the entirety of Pride and Prejudice at me?” he finally asks, a slight grin on his face.
“Yes,” she says, and nods, “yes, I did.”
“There’s no one like you, Devi,” he says, looking at her like she brought the sunrise along with her.
She opens her mouth to say something—
—she has no idea what—
—but the waitress shows up with their plates. She pulls her hand back hurriedly, and smiles at her, while Ben thanks her profusely.
Once Bianca disappears, Ben unrolls his silverware. “You’re gonna ask me for complete silence while we eat, so you can properly enjoy it, aren't you?” he asks, looking at her through his eyelashes.
“You bet I am,” she says, tearing off a piece of breadstick.
“Deal,” he says, and clinks his fork against hers.
“Really glad we managed to make it out of the restaurant without you trying to fight anyone for bread sticks,” Ben says, setting his keys in the bowl by the door. “That would’ve been really embarrassing when my date fought someone for carbs and lost.”
“What makes you think I would lose?” Devi says, insulted. “I can hold my own in a fight.”
“Can you?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. “Every time you threatened to fight me in high school, you never kept your word.”
“Did you want me to hit you?” she says back, leaning against the door. “Are you into violence, Ben? Is that your kink?”
Ben makes a face, and for a moment, Devi thinks that he will say yes. “No,” he says, “definitely not.”
“You’re thinking something,” Devi says, narrowing her eyes at him. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that it’s insane that you’d think I’m into violence,” he says, and steps forward. He is suddenly very, very close to her, and she can feel the heat of him bleeding through her clothes. “But, I’m also wondering what you’re into.”
Her heartbeat picks up. “Blonds,” she says, without thinking, then furrows her eyebrows, “sorry, that isn’t even really true—I don’t know where that came from.”
He laughs, tilting his head back for just a moment. “I’m glad that neither of us are into blonds, then,” he says, and suddenly, his hands are curving around her hip bones. “But, seriously, what are you into, Devi?”
“Um… I like good first dates,” she tells him, and tentatively reaches a hand up, pressing it against his chest. His proximity to her is clouding her brain. “And—and blue eyes. And I like the way you talk to me.”
“Is that so?” he asks, dipping his head down.
She swears that he is going to kiss her; he is too close to her not to, lips parted and eyes half lidded, his pupils blown wide—
—I would kiss you goodnight, every night—
—and she closes her eyes, expecting him to press his lips against hers and keep his promise from a million days ago.
Instead, he presses his lips to her cheek, warm and shockingly sweet, and despite the simplicity of the chaste gesture, she gasps, curving into him subconsciously.
“You looks really pretty, Devi,” he whispers, against her skin, then pulls away—
—she wants him, she wants him bad—
—and when she says nothing in response, he whispers, “good night, Devi.” and walks away.
Devi stays still, frozen, until she hears his bedroom door close, shocking her back into motion.
She toes off her shoes and leaves her purse on the floor, walking to her bedroom. She closes and locks the door, and paces around from a moment—
—do you really mean that?—
—of course I do—
—and, without thinking, she falls backwards on her bed, sticking her hand into her underwear and thinking about Ben’s lips against her skin.
“This is probably the first good idea you’ve ever had in your life,” Devi says, ducking under his arm and walking into the bakery. “Dessert tour of New York City. It’s genius… who suggested it to you?”
“I came up with the idea on my own,” he says, looking offended, “but I got recommendations on places from some of my classmates, and a professor.”
“Aw, you sucked up to a professor for me?” Devi asks, putting a hand to her chest, “that’s so sweet and out of character for you. I never would have thought you’d suck up to a professor.”
“I know, it’s very unexpected of me,” he says, smiling—
—it sets her heart on fire—
—“Anyway, Donovan from my constitutional law class recommends the double chocolate chip brownies from this place,” Ben says, nodding towards the display case. “He says they’re better than gay heaven. I also think he might have a crush on me.”
“Cute that you think you’re hot enough for a guy named Donovan to be into you,” Devi says. “But, also extremely cocky that you’re starting this tour off with a brownie. That's like, cheesecake levels of filling.”
“Ah, but Friday is sweethearts day, so we split the brownie and also get a discount,” Ben says. Devi rolls her eyes.
“First of all, cheapskate,” she says, poking him in the chest. He reacts like he has been shot, stumbling backwards and gripping his chest with both hands. “Second of all, the fact that Donovan knows that there's a sweetheart deal on Fridays means that he has a boyfriend, and therefore is not into you.”
“He can look,” Ben says, looking sheepish. “It’s not like he’s asking me out. He’s just admiring me from afar.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Ben,” she says. “Now, get me a brownie.”
He rolls his eyes, but steps up to the cashier regardless, ordering the brownie and requesting the sweethearts deal.
“How do I know you’re actually sweethearts,” the cashier says, looking at them suspiciously. Devi furrows her brow.
“We came in together, we’ve been talking the entire time, and I called him a cheapskate when he said there’s a discount for sweethearts,” Devi says, “what more evidence do you need… Tyler?” she asks, reading his nametag critically.
“I’m just saying, you could be lying for a discount,” he says. “How about this—girl, tell me what boy’s favourite colour is.”
Devi makes a face, looking Ben in the eye. “You heard him call us boy and girl, right?” she asks. “Like, that wasn’t just me?”
“Yeah, I heard it,” Ben says, sighing, “just answer his question, Devi.”
She rolls her eyes, and turns back to Tyler. “He says his favourite colour is mauve, but it’s actually blue. Like, the dark blue from a box of crayons.”
Tyler narrows his eyes at them. “How do I know she isn’t just making that up?”
“Jesus Christ, Tyler, you’re the one who told her to tell you my favourite colour without thinking it through,” Ben says, pulling out his credit card, “so, it’s on you now. Just give us the freaking brownie.”
“No need to be rude,” Tyler says, taking Ben's card and swiping it.
“Rude?” Devi repeats, raising her eyebrows, “I’ll show you rude—”
“—No, you won’t, Devi,” Ben says, banding an arm over her stomach to stop her from moving. She can feel the warmth of his skin through her clothes, and she leans into him unconsciously. “Thank you, Tyler,” he says, taking his card back with his free hand.
“Why won’t you let me fight him?” Devi hisses once Tyler ducks down into the display case to get their brownie. “He’s shrimpy, I could take him down easy.”
“Because I am not going to let you begin our date with a fight,” he says, squeezing her hip. “You can end the date with one, but that’s not how I’m starting it.”
“Fine,” Devi says, “I guess that’s fair enough.”
“Thank you,” Ben whispers to her. “And for the record, I do believe that you could take him down. He doesn’t exactly seem like a heavyweight champion.”
“I told you,” Devi says, “shrimpy.”
“What's shrimpy?” Tyler asks, straightening up. Devi cringes.
“It’s an inside joke,” Ben explains, taking the plate with the brownie on it.
“Ooh, can I be in on it?” Tyler asks.
Devi makes a face. “No,” she says, “literally why would you ever think you could be in on it?”
“She means you just had to be there,” Ben says, squeezing her hip again, this time tighter. “Thank you, though, for the brownie.”
“Anytime, boy.” He tips his hat at them.
Ben leads her away from the counter, dropping the arm around her waist once they reach a table, by the window. They sit down across from each other, and she smiles at him, unable to stop herself.
“Thanks for stopping me from committing assault,” Devi says, “that would’ve been a really bad look for you.”
“How would it have been a bad look for me?” Ben asks, unrolling one of the sleeves of silverware that Tyler had given him. “You were the one prepared to beat up the teenage counter boy.”
“You think it wouldn’t be a bad look for you if your date beat up a teenaged employee of a dessert shop we were patronizing?” she asks, accepting the fork he offers her.
“Oh, it would be an incredibly bad look for me,” he says, “but not as bad as me getting my dad to represent you.”
Devi’s brows knit together. “What?” she asks, frowning. “You’d get your dad to represent me?”
Ben shrugs. “He owes me,” he says.
“About a million broken promises,” Ben says. He tries to sound nonchalant, but Devi can tell it bothers him by the shake in his hand as he cuts a bite of brownie with the side of his fork. “Y’know, the usual.”
“I’ll fight him instead of fighting Tyler,” Devi says, shrugging. “I think I could take your dad in a fight.”
“My dad is jacked,” Ben says, grinning, just a little bit. It makes her heart flutter. “He’d wreck you.”
“Actually, I think that fight would be pretty entertaining,” Ben says, “you’re fast and scrappy and you’ve got great dexterity. It’d be a pretty even match.”
“A video game boss battle, more or less,” she says, smiling. “Okay, on the count of three, try the brownie?”
“Are you nervous?”
“A little bit,” she says, breaking off a small bite, “Donovan has really hyped this up for us.”
“That’s true,” he agrees. He holds his fork up, and she taps it with hers. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” she says. “Okay, one.. two.. three…” they both take a bite of the brownie, and Devi gasps at how good it is.
“Whoa,” Ben says, swallowing his bite of brownie, “I wasn’t expecting it to be that good.”
“I think this might give Fabiola’s mom a run for her money,” Devi says, nodding. “But never tell Fabiola I said that. Like, ever. I mean it.”
“I’m not a snitch.”
“You’re an aspiring lawyer,” Devi says, “that, by definition, makes you a snitch.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Ben says, making a face and cutting another bite of brownie, “it means that I am a law abiding citizen.”
“Even worse,” she says back, “the only thing worse than a snitch is a person who actually follows the law.”
“You dont follow the law—actually never mind, don’t tell me,” he says, waving his fork through the air. “I’d really rather not know. Plausible deniability.”
“Whatever you say, Ben,” she says, tapping her fork against the table. “Can I have the last piece of brownie, or am I gonna have to fight you for it?”
“You can have it,” he says, pushing the plate closer to her. “I need to save some room for the ice cream.”
“Oh, hell yes,” Devi says, finishing the last bite. “Take me to ice cream, snitch boy.”
“I’m not a snitch, Devi, we’ve been over this,” he says, rolling his eyes and standing up. He sets the plate and the used silverware down in a bin filled with used dishes. “I am a law abiding citizen, but I’m not a snitch.”
“Nalini thinks you look like a narc,” Devi points out, standing up. This time, she grabs the door for him, and follows him out of the restaurant. It is just starting to get cold out, October chill settling into her bones.
“Respectfully, Dr Vishwakumar is wrong,” Ben says, “I keep secrets excellently.”
“Sure you do, Ben,” Devi says. She takes his hand when he offers it, and the warmth of his palm shoots up her skin, giving her butterflies.
“Good, I’m glad you agree.”
“Where to this time?” she asks, changing the subject. “I know you mentioned something about ice cream.”
“Salvatori’s, apparently, has the best ice cream in the city,” Ben says, and lifts her hands, kissing her fingers, “and trust me, I only deliver the best.”
She cannot come up with a decent argument—not after the brownie—so she just smiles up at him instead, and lets him lead her around the city.
“So, two ice cream places, a brownie, and a chocolate chip cookie the size of your head,” Ben says, unlocking the front door, “and you still aren’t full?”
“I never said my eyes were bigger than my stomach,” she says, dragging her nails over the fabric of his jacket, gently. “I think I’ve implied the opposite of that, actually.”
“Oh, I just wasn't expecting that much proof,” Ben says, pushing the door open. She follows him inside, and walks to the fridge, grabbing a Go Gurt tube and ripping it open.
“Please throw the top away,” Ben says, leaning against the center island. “You know little pieces of plastic are Heathcliff's one true love.”
“I know, I know,” she says, opening the lid of the trashcan and dropping the top of the Go Gurt in. “He keeps trying to eat the bristles off my brush,” she tells him, emptying the Go Gurt into a bowl and grabbing a clean spoon from the dish drying mat.
“You eat Go Gurt wrong,” Ben says, watching her eat, “like, offensively wrong.”
“Good thing I didn’t ask for your opinion on how I eat it,” she says, taking another bite. “It’s just less messy this way.”
“And less fun,” Ben says, taking the empty tube and tossing it into the trash can, “I’m surprised you care about the potential of a mess, anyway.”
“Well, seeing as I didn’t grow up rich and actually clean up after myself,” Devi says, to Ben’s eye roll, “yeah, I do care about the mess.”
“I clean up after myself. I clean up after myself often,” he says, “honestly, when I was growing up, the only things Patty ever did for me was cook food and do laundry.”
“Why’d she do your laundry?” Devi asks, finishing the Go Gurt and setting the dishes in the sink. “Did you not know how?”
“No, we had a vertical washer and dryer, and I couldn’t reach the dryer until I was about eleven—plus, I was always afraid I would break them, and that Patty would get blamed, or something.”
“Aww, that’s so dorky of you,” Devi says, leaning against the counter. “But, it’s also kinda sweet.”
“Yeah, it’s because I’m the sweetest boy in all the world,” he says, stepping towards her—
—it is repetitive, a copy of the end of their first date, pressing her against the door and subverting all of her expectations—
—“Plus, I’m also cute.”
Devi scoffs, but tilts into him subconsciously when he rests his hands on the counters on either side of her. “Your unconventional looks are starting to grow on me,” she says, and he smiles, staring down at her mouth, “like—like moss, or a fungus. Lichen, even.”
“Aren’t lichens a type of fungus,” he says, and kisses her cheek, lingering—
—it is not enough, and she has never really been the type to just wait for what she wants—
—there, like he is thinking of doing more.
“I don’t really care,” she says, and cups his cheek with one hand, turning his lips to hers and kissing him.
He groans into it, and digs a hand into her hair, gentle, tilting her head and kissing her harder. Her hands drift down his body as his lips wreak havoc on her, and her nails scrape along his side, over his t-shirt.
He kisses her gently, soft, like he is afraid she will break or disappear beneath his fingers, but when they break apart, he is breathing heavy.
“Hi,” she says, her voice sounding thick.
“Hi yourself,” he says, and scratches her scalp, gently. She sighs, leaning into it. “Did you have a good time tonight?”
“Yes,” she says, honest, closing her eyes. “Can I sleep in your room tonight?” she asks, before she can stop herself. Ben’s movements falter. She refuses to open her eyes.
“Yeah,” he says, “you can.”
She sighs, too happy, and lets her head fall forward to rest against his shoulder. “Thank you.”
He curves a hand down her back, then traces his index fingers in a circle, at the base of her spine. “Of course.”
devi: i kissed ben
devi: and im in his bed. hes sleeping rn
keerthi: oooooo here we go!
devi: this is honestly not the reaction i was expecting
keerthi: why would you have expected literally anything else
rebecca: was it good? do you want him to ruin you?
devi: ugh it was TOO good what do i DO with that
keerthi: what do you mean it was too good ??? is he really that good of a kisser?
fabiola: Can men ever really be good kissers?
devi: they can if u have to take several deep breaths after they kiss u when they arent looking
aneesa: WHOA it was that big of a kiss???
devi: actually no
devi: now that i think abt it
devi: there’s no good reason for me to b breathless like that
devi: oh my god do you guys think i’m dying
devi: i could have a lung condition
devi: is sudden onset cystic fibrosis a real thing??
devi: i should know that i’m in med school
devi: oh god this is bad
fabiola: Jesus Christ Devi you were breathless because you like him
rebecca: wait i thought we already established that she likes him when she opened the council meeting with “i kissed ben”
aneesa: you never know with her. she’s the female version of a manwhore
keerthi: so just a whore?
aneesa: no i don’t subscribe to those ideals
devi: i need a new council
rebecca: you are aware you’re talking to your current council, yes?
devi: yep. this is my two week notice
keerthi: no it isn't you’re stuck with us
devi: god why did i kiss him that was so stupiiiiiiid
rebecca: not if you like him
rebecca: also youre in his bed right now so i would argue that it wasnt stupid
devi: liking him is irrelevant because it’s BEN
rebecca: SO YOU DO LIKE HIM
eleanor: you like him you like him you like him
fabiola: No shit
keerthi: oh this is such a good day
keerthi: i LOVE being right
devi: you arent completely right
devi: he doesn’t like me
rebecca: jesus christ
aneesa: if he kissed you then he like you
devi: i kissed him tho
keerthi: but he kissed you back?
rebecca: and again, IN HIS BED
rebecca: so he likes you
rebecca: like this isn’t even an argument anymore lmao he likes you. you kissed and he likes you
devi: we’re taking it to a vote
fabiola: For the love of God
devi: distraction, how do you vote?
fabiola: Yea. But this is ridiculous
rebecca: you know how i vote
devi: answer the question
devi: don’t ruin this
rebecca: fine. yea
keerthi: yea all day, d
rebecca: it’s unanimous
rebecca: the boy wants to have your babies
devi: ew don’t say it like that
fabiola: Yeah seconded, don’t
They are sitting under a pillow fort, halfway through a game of chess that she is only partially paying attention to, when he brings it up.
“Are you the kind of person who has sex on the third date?” Ben asks, moving his rook to D3.
“Why do you ask?” she says, surveying the board, trying to predict his next moves.
“Because, we just got back from a very fun burgers and a movie date—which, if you’re keeping track, would be our third—and when I asked you what you wanted to do now that we were home, I ended up playing chess in a pillow fort,” he says. She moves a pawn aimlessly. “Not that I’m complaining, by the way, I love having the opportunity to beat you in anything. But, I just want to know where we are on the whole sex-or-no-sex page. Also, check.”
“Shit,” Devi swears, and moves her king to the side. “Do you want to have sex with me?”
“Yes,” he says, plainly, immediately. She could swear her fingertips are blushing. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Okay, she says, and picks up the chessboard. She finds the opening flap to their pillow fort—
—God, this thing is massive, high ceilings and pillows as foundation—
—tossing it out haphazardly. She turns back to Ben, who is staring at her wide eyed. His mouth is hanging open. “I’m ready.”
“I was just about to put you in check again,” he says, “I was gonna win.”
“Guess we’ll never know for sure,” Devi says back. She rests a hand on his chest. “Are you so heartbroken about the chess game with an ambiguous ending that you dont want to have sex with me?”
“I think I can get over that,” he says, leaning back against the couch, tugging her on top of him. He cups the back of her neck, and tilts his head up, kissing her hard, bruising—
—he has never kissed her like this—
—it has always been soft, gentle, a slow heat that burned her from the inside out—
—and his hands slip up into her hair, tugging gently. She groans into his mouth, and bites down on his bottom lip, tugging at it with her teeth.
“Jesus, Devi,” he whimpers, once she has let go, trailing her lips down his neck, “you’re going to be the ruin of me.”
“Good,” she breathes, sucking a mark into his neck, “I like that.”
“Fuck,” he breathes, gripping at her, tight. “Lean back, babe,” he says, a hand pressed against her chest, easing her backwards. She goes easily, and lets him lift her shirt over her head, leaving her in just her bra and jeans.
Usually, when she takes her clothes off in front of someone for the first time, she feels nervous, exposed, but she does not feel that with Ben—
—she has been exposed in front of him in too many other ways—
—and she reaches behind her, unhooking her bra, letting it fall down her shoulders.
He tilts forward, pressing his lips to the center of her chest, and licking a stripe over her skin. She shivers, skin hot, and leans into him. “God, you’re so beautiful,” he whispers, kissing her everywhere, just the barest brush of lips against overheated skin. “So, so beautiful.”
“You—you aren’t too bad yourself,” she breathes, knotting her fingers into the hair on the back of his head. “You clean up nice.”
“Mmm, I know,” he says, against her skin. He unzips and unbuttons her jeans, and dips the tips of his fingers past the waistband of her underwear, digging his fingernails into sensitive skin.
She gasps, then whines, trying to tell him with her hips that she wants him to touch her. He does not take the hint, and she realizes she is going to have to say it. “Ben,” she whispers, more of an exhale than anything.
He draws a circle underneath her navel. “Yes?”
“I want you to touch me,” she says, managing to get the words out without her voice skipping like a scratched record. She feels him smirk against her skin.
“Of course, baby,” he says, and moves his hand down. He slides a finger into her, and circles his thumb over her clit. He touches her slowly, gently, like he is trying to burn her from the inside out.
“Ben,” she whines, jolting every time his thumb presses against her clit, “Ben, come on.”
“You have to tell me when you want something, baby,” he says, into her ear, and the pet name makes her legs jerk. “Talk to me, tell me how to make you feel good.”
“Faster, faster,” she says, trying to egg him on with her hips. “And-and harder, against my clit.”
“Good, baby,” he says, following her instructions
She whines, tilting her hips into his hand. “Kiss my neck,” she tells him, and summons up the presence of mind to move her arms, sweeping her hair behind her back. “You—you can leave marks on me.”
“Fuck,” he breathes, and ducks his head. He bites at her neck, and she keens, digging her nails into his arm. “You’re so beautiful like this?”
“Horny?” she asks, breathing hard.
“Needy for me,” he corrects, tongue darting out to soothe at her bitten skin.
“Fuck, faster—faster, I’m close,” she whimpers, grinding into his hand. He eases another finger into her, crooking them, and circling his thumb over her clit, exactly right. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Come on, baby, come for me, come for me, Devi,” he says, against her skin, kissing her neck open-mouthed. “Come for me, baby.”
His words act as a catalyst, and she tips over the edge. Waves of pleasure ricochet across her body, her brain melting, and she bucks into Ben's hand, grinding down against him. She thinks she moans his name.
When she comes down, he is peppering soft kisses over her skin, lips dragging. It makes her shiver. She reaches down, palming him carefully through his sweatpants. He groans, and drops his head to her shoulder, breath puffing against her skin.
“Do you want to keep going, Devi?” he asks, voice raising goosebumps against her bare skin. She feels around for the waistband of his sweatpants and underwear, and when she finds it, she pushes them both down his hips.
“Do you have a condom?” she asks, ghosting her fingers over his thighs.
“My wallet—outside of the tent,” he says. She tilts backwards, and reaches around outside of the fort until her fingers close around his wallet. She flicks it open, and thumbs through the slots until she finds the one with his condom in it.
“Take off your underwear,” she tells him, leaning off of him. He listens, sitting up and tugging his underwear and sweatpants off, gracelessly, and tossing them in the pile with her bra and t-shirt.
She takes off her own pants and underwear, then turns back to him, bracing her palms against his chest. She eases him backwards, until he is lying on his back. “I want to be on top,” she says, kneeling over his legs. “Is that okay?”
“Fuck, yes,” he says, looking at her wide eyed. She wishes there was enough light in the fort to see the blue of his eyes.
She rips the condom open carefully, then rolls it onto him, and shifts, sinking down onto his dick. He groans, low and guttural, and grips at her hips, blunt nails digging into her skin. “Jesus, Devi,” he says, eyes closed.
She moves, bouncing on her heels carefully. “You’re cute,” she whispers, not really thinking about it.
“How so?” he asks, moving a hand to rub at her clit.
Her mind starts to go fuzzy. “You—you just got very—fuck—cute about me riding you,” she explains, letting her eyes flutter closed. She grinds down against him, hard and punishing, and he rocks his hips up to meet her.
“Wanting you to ruin me is cute?”
“In—In a way,” she says, opening her eyes. Ben has a mischievous look on his face. He grips her hip, one handed, and thrusts into her harder. She cries out, grappling at his chest, her vision spotting black. “Ben,” she whimpers. “More.”
“Do you want me to fuck you?” he asks, sounding entirely too smug, entirely too self assured. It works for her.
“Fuck, yes, yes,” she breathes, digging her fingernails into his skin, hard.
“Alright, baby,” he says, and grips her hips with both hands, guiding her against him. She whimpers as she gets closer, her movements erratic—
—God, she wants him—
—she has him—
—and suddenly, she is tripping forward into her release, Ben’s arms tight around her.
devi: guess what
devi: i had sex with ben
fabiola HAS LEFT the council (GROUP CHAT)
keerthi: we’ll add her back in after we have this discussion that clearly needs to happen
aneesa: do i have to listen to this? ben is like, my best friend
devi: im not gonna go into specifics im not disgusting
devi: i just need to tell you guys that it was so good and happened in a pillow fort after we watched a riveting film and played half a game of chess
eleanor: oooo a pillow fort
eleanor: im gonna make one tonight with paxton
eleanor: i think hed be on board
rebecca: yeah he totally would
rebecca: im surprised that hasnt happened already knowing you two
devi: hello devi news to process here
keerthi: why would we ever want to process any of that??
devi: because you love me
aneesa: you said we didnt have to go into specifics and in order to process it wed need to have specifics
devi: do you WANT specifics, aneesa qureshi????
aneesa: no, im just explaining to you why we ARENT processing it
devi: ugh you guys are the worst
devi: you can add fab back in though
devi: since you all are prudes
fabiola HAS BEEN ADDED TO the council (GROUP CHAT)
devi: welcome back
fabiola: I need more queer friends
rebecca: been telling you that for years, honey
“Eleanor likes The Sound of Music enough to audition for it?” Ben asks, looking at the cast list pinned to the bulletin board outside of the theatre. “Who likes Julie Andrews that much?”
“My mother,” Devi says, raising her eyebrows and looking at him critically.
His eyes get a little wide. “Julie Andrews is a delight of an actress and a gifted singer and dancer,” he says quickly, looking back at the bulletin board. “I haven’t seen The Sound of Music in years, anyway, so I’m not exactly a good judge of its quality.”
“We're going to rectify that immediately,” Devi says.
“I know we are, we’re about to see Eleanor try to be a nun.”
“No, I mean we’re going to watch the actual film in the next forty-eight hours,” Devi says, and laughs at the look of abject horror on Ben's face. “I love Eleanor, but Julie Andrews is the woman meant for this role. No one can top her performance as fräulien Maria, a wayward and free spirited nun turned governess turned naval captain wife and mother of seven.”
“Wasn't the captain like, a million years older than her?”
“In real life, yes,” Devi says, tugging Ben inside of the theatre, “but we don’t discuss real life when Christopher Plummer is staring Julie Andrews down like he wants her to give him a lapdance on a film reel.”
“Oh, God, don’t talk about Christopher Plummer like that ever again, please,” Ben says, making a face.
“I want him to rail me.”
“Jesus, Devi,” Ben says. “Am I not enough?”
She makes a pfft noise. “I’d cast you off in a heartbeat for Christopher Plummer. Or Julie Andrews.”
“Wow, I see how it is,” Ben says, faux petulance.
She stops walking, and turns to face him. “Are you really getting jealous over my love for unattainable old white people?” she asks, squeezing his hand to let him know she is kidding.
“You called me an old white person this morning.”
“Yeah, but the difference is that you’re attainable,” she says, smiling. She turns back around, and pulls him along towards the entrance of the seats. “C’mon, Fab and Paxton are waiting for us.”
“Paxton and Fab are together?” Ben asks. “That's a pair, for sure.”
“Honestly, they’ve bonded over their mutual adoration of Eleanor and their general horniness for women,” Devi explains, shrugging and looking over the heads of people in the crowd for Fabiola and Paxton.
“Adoration?” Ben asks.
“I think Paxton is this close to launching the Eleanor Wong fan club that he’s been talking about,” Devi explains, finally catching sight of Fabiola on the other side of the lobby. “He’s gone for her.”
“And then some, it sounds like,” Ben says, whispering apologies to the people they push past. “Devi, you’re going to knock someone over.”
“I’m forging a path ahead and making my way past the obstacles, Ben,” Devi says, narrowly stepping on someone’s foot. “Try to look at it through a feminist lens.”
“I’m not going to look at assault and battery through a feminist lens, David,” he says.
“It's hardly assault and battery,” she says, “now, hush, we’re almost to Fab and Paxton.”
She can almost feel him roll his eyes, but he falls quiet regardless, letting her lead him the rest of the way to Fabiola. She catches sight of them just as they break through the crowd, and her face lights up. She catches Devi in a hug, wrapping her arms around her and lifting her up off of her feet.
“Whoa, Fab, put me down,” Devi says, tapping her shoulders, “I’m not a baby or a suitcase—I belong on the ground.”
“What about when you’re on airplanes?” Fabiola asks, setting her down. “Or elevators?”
“Just a different form of the ground,” Devi says, “as long as my feet are on a solid surface, I’m comfortable. More than comfortable, even.”
“You do excel when you’re on the ground,” Fabiola says, nodding. She looks around quickly. “So, how are things with Ben?”
Perfect is an understatement. Ben is wonderful, he knows her coffee order and her favourite movies and knows exactly how to make her smile. She is happy with him, and for once, she feels like she is not letting anything get in her way.
“Really good,” she answers, smiling, “somehow, he’s less annoying when I can kiss him.”
“Everyone is less annoying when you can kiss them,” Fabiola says, rolling her eyes.
“Certainly not everyone,” Devi says, making a face. “What about, like, Donald Trump? Alec Baldwin? Kanye?”
“Okay, okay, you win, stop putting horrifying and unforgivable images into my head, please,” Fabiola says, frowning. “Ugh, Alec Baldwin is the worst.”
“I know,” Devi says, nodding. A loudspeaker crackles to life and announces a ten minute warning till the show starts.
“Come on, let's go get the boys and find our seats,” Fabiola says, and turns to Paxton and Ben. they are standing awkwardly, looking like they are at least attempting to have half a conversation. The back of Ben's neck is a little red, and Devi snorts.
“Ben,” she says, and he turns around instantly, smiling, a relieved look on his face when he sees her. He walks over, and drops his hands on her hips, smiling down at her. “We gotta find our seats.”
“Paxton and I have nothing in common.”
“I know,” Devi says, rolling his eyes. She grabs one of his hands. “Come on, let's find seats.”
He follows her easily into the auditorium, and she tries not to picture any of the ways that this could go wrong.
She is making coffee when he tells her.
He shuffles into the kitchen, bleary eyed and sleepy. Devi pushes herself up on her tiptoes to kiss him, tasting like toothpaste. “Morning,” she says, falling back on her heels and turning to the coffee maker. “I want to tell you now that you shouldn’t get used to me making breakfast for you, I was just feeling overly generous when I woke up this morning.”
“We’ve been together for a few months now, David,” Ben says, leaning against the counter, “I have never, not once, expected you of all people to make breakfast. I would’ve expected it from Heathcliff before you.”
“You could have just said yeah Devi, this is a nice surprise,” she says, sliding him a plate of pancakes and a bottle of syrup. “That would’ve done it just fine.”
“I’m an overachiever, babe,” he says. She hands him a cup of coffee, sugar already added. “Speaking of which, I—I found something out last night.”
She stalls, her movements faltering as she eases a pancake onto her plate. “What was it?” she asks, turning around to look at him. She sets her plate on the kitchen island, across from him, leaning against the cool marble. “Big inheritance?”
“In a way,” he says, sipping his coffee. “My dad called—he offered me the running of his Los Angeles office once I graduate.”
Devi curls her fingers around the lip of the counter. “That’s—congrats, Ben,” Devi says, nodding, “that's a really big opportunity, I’m proud of you.”
“Yeah, I mean it’s not that big of a deal,” he says, and shrugs, “I always kind of knew that my dad would offer the position to me.”
Something in her fractures into pieces—
—if he always knew, then that means he was always intending to accept—
—he was always intending to leave—
—and maybe that has always been the plan—
—maybe it was more than a maybe—
—and she lets go of the counter, digging her nails into her palms instead. “We should break up,” she says, trying to make her voice as even as possible.
Ben's face falls, and he sets his fork down, straightening up—
—she hates it, that he acts like a lawyer when they argue, and just once, she wishes he would get mad like she does—
—would throw coffee cups out of windows and smash beakers in class and scream at the top of his lungs—
—“Where is this coming from?” he asks, diplomatic. His eyebrows are knit together, his hands stuffed into his pockets.
“Your dad offered you the position you’ve wanted for most of your life,” she says, “and it’s across the country from here, so we should break up. I’ll move out after I get back from my amma’s for the holidays.”
“Devi, I think you’re—”
“—What? Overreacting?” Devi says, and rolls her eyes. “I’m not going to throw your coffee cup out the window. I just…”
“Just what, Devi?” he asks, his voice hushed, and for a moment, Devi swears that he will cry—
—what is there to cry for?—
—but he swallows instead, his throat bobbing.
“It’s logical,” she says, “you have a—a law firm with your name already on it waiting for you in California, you can finally get the recognition you deserve from your dad—
“—and I-I would just be holding you back,” she says, “I’m dead weight, and—and if you’re being honest, you were only with me out of obligation.”
“What?” he breathes. She scrubs her hands over her thighs—
—she realizes, all of a sudden, that she is wearing Ben’s t-shirt, the too big fabric draping over her body, covering her thighs, and there is an overwhelming need to run pushing its way out of her skin—
—and walks around him, quickly, ducking into the hallway. “Devi—”
“It just makes sense, okay?” she says, walking into her bedroom and closing the door. She strips off his t-shirt, and tosses it into the corner—
—she has not slept in here in so long—
—tugging one of her sweaters over her head. She finds a clean pair of leggings in one of her drawers, pulling them on. When she walks back out of her room, her suitcase for her trip back home in one hand and her duffel bag in the other.
Ben is still standing in the kitchen, staring at her, his jaw set—
—finally, he is angry—
—and it gives her no satisfaction—
—“So you’re just—just leaving?” he asks, his voice laced with defeat, staring at her.
“I should get a headstart, shouldn’t I?” she asks, refusing to meet his eyes.
“Fine,” he says, “go. You always do.”
Instead of making her angry, his words only hurt her
ben: MISSED CALL 2:24 PM
ben: MISSED CALL 3:30 PM
ben: MISSED CALL 3:46 PM
ben: MISSED CALL 5:52 PM
devi: hi, if youre receiving this message, im either driving or im in a big metal tube in the sky. heres a tip: stop calling people, it isnt olden times. just text like a normal human being. unless youre my mom, cousin, or grandmother, in which case you can ignore that, and ill call you back as soon as i can. everyone else, youre weirdos
“Devi athai!” Pujeetha shouts, opening the front door, breaking out in a grin, “amma, it’s Devi athai!”
“Why did you open the door, kanna, you know better than this,” Kamala says, smoothing Pujeetha’s hair back from her forehead, “even when your auntie is at the door.”
“I got excited, amma,” Pujeetha says, rolling her eyes, like that is a perfect excuse to open the front door without permission. “Plus, it’s just Devi athai.”
“Okay, we will talk about this later, kanna,” Kamala says, making a face that only Devi can see. “Why don’t you go get appa and have him help you carry your auntie’s bags up to her room.”
“Does this mean I have to share a room with her?” Pujeetha asks, apprehensive. “Because I like Devi athai, but I don’t want to share a room with her.”
—will I have to share my room?—
—not if you don’t want to—
—and tilts down, kissing Pujeetha on the forehead. “You can have a sleepover with appa and I,” she says. Pujeetha smiles, then nods, and disappears up the stairs.
“It’s really weird to hear a whole human call you amma,” Devi says. Kamala ignores her, tugging her into a hug, and peppering kisses all over her face.
“I missed you, chellam,” she says, then grabs Devi’s shoulders, pushing her backwards to look her up and down. “You did not get any drunk tattoos, yes? Or belly button piercings?”
“Nope,” Devi says, “the only non-biological hole in my body goes through my nostril. And my earlobes, but those don’t count. My mom made that decision.”
“Oh, it is too good to see you,” Kamala says, then ushers her inside.
Devi toes her shoes off, and pulls her suitcase and duffel into the foyer. They are not that heavy, but after an eight hour flight, her limbs and muscles feel like jelly. It is taking effort just to stand.
“Hey, Devi,” Manish says, walking down the stairs quickly, Pujeetha on his heels. “I thought you weren’t due in for another day?”
“I caught an earlier flight,” she says, and nods once. “How are you, Mr K? Or, should I be calling you uncle?”
“Call me uncle, and I’ll jump out that window,” he says,pointing to the dining room window. He grabs her duffel bag, and slings it over his shoulder. “It’s already weird enough that you still call me Mr K.”
“You should call me Miss K,” Pujeetha says, smiling. She is missing a tooth, and it makes Devi’s heart ache—
—there is so much of Pujeetha’s childhood that she has missed—
—“and my amma Dr N!”
“I already call her akka,” Devi says, bumping her shoulder against Kamala’s, “that’s the best she’s getting from me.”
“But it would be so fun,” Pujeetha whines.
“If you host a formal tea party, then we can refer to everyone by their proper titles, Lady Kulkarni,” Manish says, and grabs Devi’s suitcase. “And, as the lady of the house, how about you show me to Devi athai’s room so I can take her stuff there?”
“Only if you let me carry the suitcase,” Pujeetha says, straightening up. “I have a bet to settle with periya pati.”
“We can both hold the suitcase, and you can tell me about the bet that you made with your periya pati,” Manish negotiates. Pujeetha nods, and wraps a small hand around the handle of Devi’s suitcase, walking back up the stairs with Manish.
“She is going to be a lawyer,” Devi says, walking into the living room, with Kamala behind her. She sits down on the couch, gravity tugging her into place. “Or a compulsive gambler. Whichever one she discovers first.”
“I am crossing my fingers for lawyer,” Kamala says, sitting down on the couch next to Devi. “Right now, she wants to be an artist and a marine biologist—artist on weekdays, and marine biologist on weekends.”
“Ah, the marine biologist phase,” Devi says, “what a fine time in a young girl's youth.”
“It’s a phase?” Kamala asks, furrowing her brows and looking at Devi strangely. “I always wanted to be a microbiologist.”
“And that is why you are perfect.”
Devi hears the front door open and close. “Kamala, whose shoes are those in the—Devi!” Nirmala shouts, appearing in the living room entryway.
“What?” Nalini’s voice calls, followed by the sound of hurried footsteps. She shows up, stopping next to Nirmala. “Devi, you’re here!” she finally says, half shouting, after a moment of staring at Devi and Kamala on the couch. “You're here—you’re early, kanna, is everything alright?”
Devi stands up, and throws her arms around her mother, hugging her tight. It takes Nalini a moment, but she hugs her back. “I just got a sooner flight, I-I missed you, amma.”
“I missed you so much,” Nalini whispers, into her hair. She holds Devi for a moment longer, and Devi can swear her mother is breathing her in, like she is trying to memorize exactly how she smells. “You did not get any tattoos in New York, am?”
“No, I did not,” Devi says, pulling away from the hug and looking her mother over. Her hair is longer, and grayer, gathered into a braid that is hanging over her shoulder. There are crows feet at the corners of her eyes. She looks older. She looks happy.
“Good, good,” she says, smoothing Devi’s stray hairs away from her face, the exact same way that Kamala did with Pujeetha. “And you are eating enough? And sleeping enough? I know med school is tiring, but you must take care of yourself, kanna.”
“I will give you the full rundown of every single meal I’ve eaten for the last three months very soon, amma,” Devi says. She kisses her mothers cheek once, quickly, and moves to hug Nirmala. “Hello, pati.”
“Vanakkam, kanna,” Nirmala says, hugging her for just a moment before leaning her weight back on her cane. “You will be happy to know that your mother finally caught me stealing the neighbours fruit and put a stop to it.”
“Oh?” Devi asks, raising her eyebrows. “How did she do that?”
“She bought an orange tree sapling,” Nirmala says.
“No,” Devi says, laughing. She can almost picture it: her mother being fed up enough to buy a tree from an unsuspecting Home Depot employee.
“It is planted in the backyard, and in three or four years, we’ll have oranges,” Nirmala says, with finality.
“Do you want to show me the orange tree, pati?” Devi asks, already holding out her arm.
“More than anything,” Nirmala says, taking her arm and leading her to the backyard. She begins talking again, about the particulars of being caught by Nalini, and Devi can almost—
—forgot about Ben entirely.
She can never get anything past Kamala.
When they were children, Kamala used to be able to read Devi’s mind. Her mother has told her more than once that, when Devi was a baby, Kamala knew she was going to cry before she ever did. That Kamala was the first of her cousins to hold her, the only to ever wash her hair—
—she did once, when Devi was a baby and her mother was exhausted, and she did it again when Devi was in a wheelchair, arms aching, without her ever having to ask—
—and somehow, through insults and fights and rocky teenage years, that bond has persisted.
Devi knows it has, because Kamala comes into her room on the second night of her holiday break, and locks the door so Pujeetha cannot barge in.
“Enna tavaru?” she asks, eyebrows furrowed. Devi is laying on her back, her legs kicked up onto the headboard of her bed. “Devi,” Kamala says, drawing out the vowels, “talk to me, chellam.”
“I promised Ben I would marry him,” she blurts, without really thinking it through.
“Enna?” Kamala asks, her voice high up in her throat. “Did you go to Vegas? Because Devi, I love you, but if you got married without me—”
“No,” Devi says, interrupting her. She lets her legs drop, and pushes herself up. She turns, and looks Kamala in the face. Kamala has cut her hair sometime in between Devi’s visits, to a bob that brushes her shoulders. There are short lengths of grey at her roots, and at her temples. “No, I— it’s a really long story, akka.”
“I have time,” she says, sitting at the foot of Devi’s bed, tucking her legs underneath herself. “Plus, who am I going to tell?”
“Amma?” Devi suggests, pushing her eyebrows together.
“Literally, why would I tell Nalini Auntie?” Kamala says, putting a hand to her chest in fake offense. “I have been keeping secrets from her for years.”
“She knows that you ducked out on your engagement dinner to hang with Mr K,” Devi says, rolling her eyes.
“No, it’s not that that I have been keeping from her.” Kamala waves a hand through the air. “I hid pot in this house. I'm pretty sure there is still a baggie taped to the wall behind one of the posters in my room.”
“Oh my God,” Devi says, putting a hand to her chest. “What else have you done?”
“I had sex before I got married,” she says, shrugging, “and I didn’t marry Prashant.”
“Yeah, well, not marrying Prashant is old news,” Devi says, “and if you had been married to Prashant this whole time, I’d be really concerned about the child you have that calls my literature teacher appa.”
“It is weird that you still call him your literature teacher,” Kamala says, “you have not been in high school for seven years.”
“He is my literature teacher first and your husband second.”
“At least stop calling him Mr K.”
“Whatever,” Kamala says, though Devi knows she is going to bring it up again and again, until she eventually agrees. “The point is, whatever you are going to tell me, I can handle it.”
“I promised Ben we could get married at twenty-eight when we were kids, and we’ve been kind of dating, and I really like him, but I broke up with him because I-I think I’m bad for him,” Devi says, all in one breath, on exhale.
Kamala blinks at her once, twice, then shakes her head quickly. “I don’t—I don’t think I understand,” she says, making a face. “What does promising to marry him have to do with it?”
“I don’t know,” Devi says, “I mean, it isn’t like—it’s not like we have to get married, I just… I think I liked using it as an excuse to be with him.”
“Why did you think you needed an excuse?”
“Because he—he wouldn’t want me otherwise.”
“You are the one that broke up with him, though,” Kamala says, pressing two fingers to the bridge of her nose. “If he did not want you, he wouldn’t have dated you in the first place—or he would’ve broken up with you.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Devi says, voice wavering. “He’s too nice to break up with me.”
Kamala snorts. “No, he isn’t,” she says, laughing.
“Do you remember when Ben had dinner with us?” Kamala asks. “After your Model UN trip?”
Devi cringes. That trip had been disastrous, and had gotten her officially banned from Model UN for the rest of high school—
—she had showed up at a meeting in college, just to check it out, and somehow, everyone there knew her name—
—as well as significantly messing up her relationship with Paxton.
“Yes, I do remember amma betraying me and inviting my nemesis into our home,” Devi says, inappropriately bitter.
“I know what he didn’t tell us,” Kamala says. Devi sits up straighter, and looks at her wide eyed.
“What? How the hell did you find out about that?” Devi asks, her eyebrows knit together.
“Manish told me,” she says, shrugging, “a few years after it happened.”
“Traitor,” Devi hisses, picking at a loose thread on her blanket. When she moved out, she took her bedspread with her, and her mother has since replaced it with a blanket that her pati knitted.
“My point is, Ben does things with your best interest at heart,” Kamala says. She reaches out, and smooths a hand over Devi’s hair, scratching at her scalp. “He would not stay with you if he did not like you.”
“How would it be in my best interest to not be with me?” Devi asks, even though she already knows the answer.
“Because he knows it would only break your heart worse to stay, chellam,” Kamala says. She smooths her hand over Devi’s cheek, pushing her glasses back up her nose with her thumb. “He probably thinks that you do not like him, because you are the one who broke up with him.”
“I did it for a bad reason,” Devi admits, leaning into the warmth of Kamala’s palm. She had forgotten how comforting Kamala's presence and her touch is.
“He got offered the chance to lead his dad's Los Angeles office,” Devi admits, closing her eyes before she can see the look on Kamala's face, “I just—I panicked.”
“He said he was going to take it?” Kamala asks.
“No,” Devi says, shaking her head. Kamala does not drop her hand. “He just told me about it, and then I freaked out and—and yelled at him and then left. The next morning I got on a flight, and—here I am.”
“You have an exceptional mental panic button, Devi,” Kamala says. Devi opens her eyes, frowning at her.
“It’s true,” Kamala says. “You did not even give him a chance to say if he wanted to take the position or not.”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Devi asks, fighting against the little glimmers of hope coming to life inside of her brain.
“I don’t know,” Kamala admits, “but you didn’t even give him the chance. Because, again, exceptional mental panic buttons.”
“It would cost you nothing to be nice to me,” Devi says, sticking out her bottom lip. “But you’re probably right.”
“See? Give him a chance, thangai.”
Devi smiles. “I—I should probably let you join the council now.”
Kamala smiles, her entire face lighting up. “Unmaiyi?” she asks. “Because I have been looking forward to this since I found out about your council.”
“Yeah, Aneesa and Rebecca have told me more than once that I should let you in, I just—I don’t know. It felt like admitting something.”
“I know,” Kamala says, “you needed to be a teenager without your big sister getting into your business.”
“Exactly,” Devi says, “I’m glad you get it, akka.”
“Always, thangai,” she says, and leans forward, kissing Devi’s forehead. “Now, I know you have roles in your council—what is mine?”
Devi laughs, tossing her head back. “We’d have to confer with the council first, before you get your title, but I’m definitely thinking healer.”
Kamala beams, and that is really all Devi needs to know that she is making the right choice.
“Devi,” Kamala says, sitting down on Devis bedroom floor, against the closet door, “why are we having a council meeting? I thought you decided to talk to Ben.”
“What gave you that impression?” she asks, making a face.
“The talk that we had last night, and the fact that you asked me to join the council—thank you, by the way.”
“Anytime,” Keerthi says, giving Kamala a two-fingered salute. “Always said we needed a healer.”
“I just feel better if I have a council meeting,” Devi says, “that way everyone is up to date.”
“I mean, fair enough—”
Rebecca is cut off when the door bursts open, and Pujeetha rushes in, holding an open laptop. “I am here to take minutes,” she says, squaring her shoulders and looking around the room critically. “I don’t even need a desk.”
Manish walks in, covering his eyes. “Sorry, she got away from me while I was helping Nalini with the dishes,” he explains.
“Why are you covering your eyes, Manish?” Kamala asks, looking at him strangely from her spot against the closet door.
“I mean, I didn’t know if I was allowed to look in on the council meetings,” he says, and drops his hand. He looks around for a minute, then holds his hand out to Pujeetha. “I expected a lot more weapons.”
“Oh, we have weapons,” Rebecca says, “we just don’t display them. Element of surprise, and all that.”
“Got it,” he says, taking Pujeetha’s hand. “Come on, kiddo, we don’t wanna get on their bad side. Especially if they have weapons.”
“I’m here to take minutes,” Pujeetha says, staring at Kamala with a pleading look in her eyes. “Right, amma?”
“Sure,” Kamala says, shrugging, “but, we’re gonna be talking about boys and kissing and dating. Do you really want to risk the cooties?”
Pujeetha makes a face, and squeezes Manish’s hand. “Nope!” she says, with finality. “Cooties are your problem now, amma. Bye!” she says, and turns to leave, dragging Manish along with her.
They are quiet for a moment after the door closes, then Eleanor leans over and turns the lock. “It’s only a matter of time til she realizes you can't get cooties from talking about boys,” she explains, shrugging, “and once she does, we’ll have no defenses.”
“We’ll have the weapons,” Rebecca says.
Kamala makes a face. “We will not be using weapons on my daughter,” she says.
“The weapons are balled up socks,” Aneesa says, putting a hand on Kamala’s arm, “they wouldn’t hurt her.”
“Oh,” Kamala says, “thank you, but still, no.”
“Fine. We won't use weapons on children,” Keerthi says. “But can we please get back on topic now?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Devi says, waving a hand through the air. “I wanted to call the council meeting because I felt better if everyone was on the same page about this.”
“So, what page are you on?” Fabiola asks.
“I don’t really want to be—married to Ben,” she says, “I mean, that's insane, we’re too young. But I still want to be with him.”
“Like I said last night,” Kamala says, “you do not have to be married to him. You said you think you were using the pact that you made as an excuse to be with him, like you had a deal to fulfill.”
“I doubt the only reason Ben was with you was because he felt like you had a deal to fulfill,” Aneesa says, “that's not Ben. Ben and I have been homies for a long time, and that’s not him.”
“How do you know that, though?” Devi asks, frowning. “Like, you can't be sure that that's not why he dated me.”
“Because he dated me, and broke up with me when he realized that we weren’t compatible,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Like, the moment he realized we weren’t compatible.”
“So?” Devi asks, shrugging. She pulls the sleeves of her sweater over her palms. “What does that have to do with me and Ben?”
“It has to do with you and Ben because if he didn’t believe you were compatible, or didn’t like you, he would’ve broken up with you then and there,” Aneesa says, rolling her eyes. “I mean, come on. This is Ben. He isn’t exactly known for his unending kindness.”
Devi opens and closes her mouth, looking down at her bedspread. Dating Ben had been amazing—his laughter and his smile and kisses that tasted like chocolate, unending hours of blue-gold happiness in his eyes. She misses it. She misses him.
“I’m afraid,” she whispers, voice weak, timid. “What if he doesn’t want me now that he knows I can hurt him?”
Eleanor laughs, and Devi snaps her head up, looking at Eleanor critically. “Hey!” Devi says, and snaps her fingers, unsure of what else to do. “Why are you laughing?”
“That is a little off balance, El,” Fabiola says, making a face. “Hey, pull it together.”
“I'm sorry, I’m sorry,” she says, wiping her hands over her cheeks. Her face is red. “It's just—Devi, sweetheart, mon amour, darling—Ben has always been aware that you can hurt him.”
“What?” Devi asks, making a face.
“Um, are you forgetting that you spent most of your early childhood as best friends before losing your shit at his bar mitzvah and more or less divorcing him on the spot, leading to you becoming mortal enemies?” Eleanor asks, tilting her head to the side.
Devi cringes. Her fight with Ben at his bar mitzvah—
—all her stupid, teenage jealousy—
—has always been one of her biggest regrets, especially when he came to school the next Monday and had looked at her with so much hope in his eyes—
—she had rolled her eyes and looked away, scoffing, like he disgusted her.
“No,” Devi says, voice watery. Do not cry, she thinks, and swipes furiously at her eyes. “No, I haven’t forgotten.”
“I think her question was hypothetical,” Keerthi says, unhelpfully.
“My point is,” Eleanor says, looking at Keerthi critically. Keerthi holds her hands up innocently. “Ben knows you can hurt him. He was fine with being vulnerable because he cares for you. He fancies you.”
“Ew,” Rebecca says, “you aren’t British, don’t say it like that.”
“It sounds romantic!” Eleanor says.
“I don’t care,” Rebecca says, shaking her head. “There is no space in the council for British nonsense. I am not afraid to call a vote for your removal.”
“Eleanor is a senior member, you can’t call a vote for her removal,” Fabiola says.
“She can if she has the backing of another senior member,” Aneesa points out. “Which, sorry El, I love you, but if you keep talking like a British dude, I will cast you out.”
“I feel so loved,” Eleanor says, heavy sarcasm.
“We need to take it to a vote,” Devi says, changing the subject, her voice coming out stronger than she expected it to.
“A vote to cast me out?” Eleanor asks, sitting up straighter, frowning. “I’m not dressed for that.”
“No,” Devi says, shaking her head, “you’re staying. I meant a vote on whether I should go after Ben.”
“We all vote yea,” Keerthi says, spinning around in the computer chair that she had dragged from Kamala and Manishs room to Devi’s after the council meeting was called.
“We have to do the roll call once a vote has been suggested,” Fabiola says, flipping through the council bylaws. “Devi must’ve snuck that in.”
“I want to call a vote to change that rule,” Rebecca says.
“Can't initiate a secondary voting period once one has already been called.”
“Jesus Christ, Devi” Keerthi says, “why are you like this?”
“Brains,” Devi says, ignoring Keerthi, “how do you vote?”
“Yea,” Rebecca says, without looking up from her phone, “I don’t know what else you expected.”
“And finally, our healer,” Devi says, looking at Kamala. “How do you vote, akka?”
“Yea,” she says confidently, lifting her chin. “One hundred percent.”
“Okay,” Devi says, and stands up. “I’m going to Bens.”
“Wait, right now?” Keerthi asks, sitting up straight. “Can I come with you?”
“No,” Devi says, unlocking her door and tugging it open. “There are snacks in the fridge, help yourself.”
“You’re really just leaving?” Aneesa asks, shouting after her.
“Yep!” she shouts back, walking down the stairs. “Good luck!”
“With what?” someone shouts back.
Devi ignores them, and pulls her front door open, walking out into the setting sunlight.
Ben’s house is exactly the way she remembers it being.
There is nothing there except sleek white furniture, marble countertops and heavy looking stools pushed up to the kitchen counters. Sometime between this morning and her last playdate here, his parents had installed curtains covering the giant glass windows and door that lead out to the backyard and the pool. There is a portrait of his family hanging on a clean white wall in the space they use as a dining room. The painted version of Ben looks unhappy.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, raising his eyebrows as he looks at her. “Did you want to reiterate the breakup? Because I think I got it the first time, and then got it again when I called you four times and got a ridiculous automated text. What was that about, by the way?”
“It’s my airplane mode reply,” she says, then shakes her head. “That’s not the point. I came to apologize—well, to ask you some questions, and then apologize.”
He crosses his arms. “Apologize first.”
“What?” she asks, furrowing her brow.
“Apologize first,” he repeats, the inflection the same, “apologize to me first, then I’ll answer any questions you want me to.”
“And if I dont?”
“Then I go upstairs and lock my door until you leave,” he answers. “Or I spray you with the garden hose. You pick which one you want.”
“You don’t have a garden hose long enough to reach me in here,” she says, not completely confident in her assumption.
He raises his eyebrows. “Is that really a bet you want to make?” he asks.
She closes her mouth, and knots her fingers together. She looks him over once, twice, as surreptitiously as possible, as if a handful of stolen glances are enough for her to be able to tell if he is alright.
“It’s not,” she finally says, looking him in the eye. “I’m sorry, Ben. I didn’t give you a chance.”
“No, you didnt,” he says, leaning against the doorframe. “Why didn’t you?”
“Did you only want me because of the pact we made?” she asks, unable to stop herself. “And—and are you going to take the position your dad offered you? And if your answers to those questions are both no, then—then I want to know why the answers are no. And I want to know if you’re going to ask me to marry you after I turn twenty-eight.”
“Oh,” he says, and stands up straight, dropping his arms. “Do you want to come in?”
She nods, and walks in, not bothering to wait for him to lead her—
—she can still remember his tour the first time she came over, the way he was afraid of touching anything, or of her touching anything, like the walls would come down if she dragged her fingers along them—
—and sits down on one of the stools in the kitchen, careful not to scuff the floor.
“You want tea?” he asks, rummaging through a cabinet. “We have chai in here somewhere, and chamomile. Maybe earl grey, if you’re lucky.”
“I think you want to be doing something, so, sure,” she says, “chai, please.”
He nods, and pulls a box out of a cabinet over the stove. “You know me well, David.”
“That I do,” she says, picking at the cuffs of her cardigan. She had walked here in her pajamas. “Are—are you going to answer the questions I asked?”
“I don’t want the position my dad offered me,” Ben says, filling a kettle with water, his back still turned to her. “I think he offered it to me out of obligation. And I don’t think he’s ready to retire.”
“That’s shitty of him,” Devi says, without thinking. “I mean, him offering you a position he isn’t ready to give up yet just because he thinks he’s supposed to is just—just gonna make him an even worse dad than he already is.”
“You think he’s a bad dad?” Ben asks, setting the kettle on the stove, and turning it on. Instead of turning to her, he watches it, like he can make it boil faster with his eyes.
“Yeah,” she says, knowing better than to bother lying now, “yeah, I do. I’ve thought that since I was a little kid and my amma had to take care of you when you had the flu and your parents supposedly couldn’t make it home.”
“God, I was hoping you forgot about that,” Ben says, shaking his head. “We were so young—”
“We were nine, Ben,” Devi says, making a face that he does not turn around to see, “did you really think I would forget? It was one of the most stressful weeks of my life.”
“I didn’t think you would forget, I just—I hoped you would.”
She can still remember it like it was yesterday: him calling her house and her mother picking up, listening to him cough into the phone and ask for Devi, please, Dr Vishwakumar. Her mother had driven to his house as soon as she handed the phone to Devi. They had talked about Power Rangers and what she wanted for her birthday in two weeks.
When her mother came home, she was holding Ben’s hand and a Walmart bag filled with some of his clothes, his toothbrush, a teddy bear with a bright red B stitched onto its stomach. He slept on their sofa and her mother slept on the loveseat, all week.
“I’ve hated your parents ever since,” she admits, shrugging. “I—I know you said you don’t want the position, but… are you going to take it anyway?”
“No,” he says, to the tea kettle, and her heart lets out a sigh of relief. “I think I’ve done what they’ve wanted me to do for way too long. I’m really, really sick of it.”
“I get it,” she says, and suddenly feels desperate, and guilty. “And the other thing I asked, I—you don’t have to answer, I know its—”
“—I want you because I love you,” he says, cutting her off.
“Oh,” she breathes, leaning back in the chair, for just a moment. “Please—please turn around.”
He does, and leans against the counter, looking at her—
—he has the bluest eyes she has ever seen—
—and she thinks, wildly, that it has always been obvious. “I love you,” he says, and his voice sounds completely different and exactly the same, all at once. “I’ve loved you since—since you told our waitress at Carlo’s that I’ve been your friend for forever.”
“Then why—why did you mention the pact when you asked me out?” she asks, suppressing an urge to reach out and touch him, to cup his jaw in her hand.
“Honestly?” he says, and smiles, just a little bit.
“I panicked,” he admits, and looks down at the counter, sheepish. “I didn’t think I was going to actually ask you, I was just—thinking about it, and then suddenly I had said the words and you were looking at me like I was… crazy. And I knew I needed a reason, and the first thing that came to mind was you promising to marry me twenty years ago, and it just—it seemed like a good enough reason at the time. I didn’t think it would follow us around like this.”
“It did,” she says, smiling. She can feel laughter in her throat. “It followed at an incredibly close distance.”
“That’s my fault,” he says, “that, and the whole not going after you thing. I should’ve, but I just—you seemed so upset, and I kind of thought like, oh, here it is, she’s realizing she doesn’t want me. And I didn’t want to actually hear you say that, because it would’ve broken my heart worse.”
“I’m sorry,” Devi says, “I’m gonna get better at the whole communicating thing. The next time I decide to panic breakup with you, I’ll make sure to talk it out with you first.”
“Not the time for jokes, Vishwakumar,” he says, but smiles regardless.
“Oh, hey, by the way,” Devi says, “I love you too.”
He smiles wider. “Yeah?” he asks, and she nods. “But, do you like my hair? Because I’ve been meaning to ask you that for a while.”
“It could use some work,” Devi says, pretending to look it over critically, “but a good base. Solid eight out of ten.”
“I can live with that,” he says, just as the kettle begins to whistle. He lifts it from the stove, and slides her her mug, the tea bag already sitting inside of it. He pours the water into it for her, then turns back around to make his own cup. “God, I can’t believe I’m spending another holiday alone,” he says, like he is just thinking to himself.
Devi furrows her brow, taking a cautious sip of the tea. “No, you aren’t,” she says, shaking her head.
Ben turns around, and looks at her strangely. “Um, unless my parents are going to teleport here from Bora Bora, then, yeah, I am.”
“No, you aren’t, because you’re going to come back with me to my family's house, and you’re going to spend the holiday break with a bunch of Indian people,” she says. Ben smiles at her, looking dumbfounded. “Is it still Hanukkah, by the way? I actually have no idea what day it is.”
“Yeah, there's two nights left,” he says, looking at her strangely. “Why?”
“Bring a menorah, and we’ll have a Jewish Indian Christmas Hanukkah,” she answers, shrugging. Ben laughs, rolling his eyes and tossing his head back. “It’ll be the perfect excuse to teach Pujeetha about other religions—Mr K and Kamala have been trying to find a good way to do that, y’know.”
“So, I’m a teaching tool now?”
“And a boyfriend,” Devi says, shrugging. “Seriously. I want you to be there. It’ll be weird if I have to keep leaving my house to take an Uber to my boyfriends house when he lives in the same town as me.”
“I’ll come,” Ben says, “but, I’m not calling Mr Kulkarni by his first name. It’s too weird for me.”
“You think it’s not weird for me?” Devi asks, raising her eyebrows. “He’s married to my sister. My niece calls him appa. That is what’s weird.”
“Fair enough,” Ben says, smiling at her over the rim of his mug. “You’ve got me beat on that one.”
“Damn straight,” she says, and holds her mug up. He clinks his against it.
She smiles at him, and for the first time in awhile, feels like she is missing nothing. “Cheers, Ben.”
“How tall are you?” Pujeetha asks, looking Ben up and down. Her hands are on her hips. “You look like you’re ten feet tall.”
“That’s because I am,” Ben says, shrugging.
“Don’t lie to my niece,” Devi says, throwing a piece of balled up newspaper at him. “Next time you do, you’re out of here.”
“So how tall are you really?” Pujeetha asks. “Devi athai will tell me if you lie.”
“I’m five foot seven,” Ben answers. “How tall are you?”
Pujeetha makes a face. “Amma!” she shouts. “How tall am I?”
“You’re forty-four inches tall, kutti,” Kamala shouts, from the kitchen where she is helping Nalini make dosa.
“I’m forty-four inches tall,” Pujeetha says, turning to Ben.
“Practically a giant.”
“I know,” she says, smiling. “I’m the second tallest in my class. But Ali is annoying and a boy, so he doesn’t count.”
“Then you must be first in line to reach for things off of high shelves,” Ben says, carefully hanging an ornament on the Christmas tree. He had been nervous about doing this when Manish had hauled it out of the attic—
—what if I drop an ornament and it breaks?—
—then you’ll be about as good at it as Pujeetha—
—but now, he has leaned into it, placing ornaments carefully and helping Pujeetha with branches she cannot reach.
It makes her love him more, watching him with her niece, watching him lift her up to put the star on the tree, or play endless games of rock, paper, scissors, or helping her come up with plans to negotiate a later bedtime.
“Pujeetha, kutti, come in here please,” Nalini calls.
“Coming, pati,” Pujeetha shouts back. She tugs on Ben's pant leg, and when he tilts down, she kisses him on the cheek, and runs off.
“She pulled a fast one on me,” Ben says, straightening up. “I’m gonna have to watch my wallet around her, huh?”
“Oh, please, as if you wouldn’t give her money if she asked you,” Devi says, rolling her eyes.
“I would fund her startup.”
“She’s got you wrapped around her finger,” Devi says. “She asked me the other night if she’s allowed to call you uncle when we get married, or if I meant boyfriend with a space between the words boy and friend.”
“She works fast,” Ben says, digging through one of the boxes of ornaments carefully. “I can’t remember the last time I spent a holiday with a family. Or not like, by myself.”
“That sucks,” Devi says, unsure of what else to say.
“Yeah, it does,” he says, then shrugs, looking up at her over the stacks of plastic bins. “But, I’m here now.”
“Yeah,” she says, smiling with every part of her body, “you are.”
He does not ask her to marry him on her twenty-eighth birthday.
He does not ask her to marry him at all, because she beats him to it. Sort of.
They are getting coffee, walking through the city, late December, when she brings it up, her hand in his, fingers laced together.
“Hey, Ben,” she says, taking a sip of her coffee, turning to look at him. His ears are pink with the cold, and he is shivering, just a little bit.
“Yeah?” he asks, his voice coming out echo-y, with reverberation.
“Do you want to marry me?” she asks, without really thinking it through—
—it is a direct copy of him asking her on a date, impulsive and unplanned, an unconscious refusal to consider the consequences—
—looking at him through her lashes. She does not think she can handle seeing his face forming the word no, if he says it.
“Dammit, Devi,” he says, and she furrows her brow, closing her eyes. “I always knew your inability to be patient and wait would end up screwing someone over. I just didn’t realize it would be me.”
“What?” Devi asks, opening her eyes, looking at him with a strange look on her face. “Literally what are you talking about.”
“I was going to ask you to marry me tomorrow—”
—the words make her heart flutter, and her entire body fills with shivers unrelated to the cold—
—“I literally have your amma’s ring in a box hidden in my desk,” he says, lifting the hand he is holding, and kissing her knuckles.
“You—you asked my mom for her ring?” Devi asks, her mouth falling open. “My—my appa bought her that ring. He saved up for it for months.”
“She gave it to me when I asked her if I could marry you,” he tells her, smiling, “I didn’t want to ask her for it, because I didn’t want to put her on the spot and make her feel like she had to give it up.”
“But she still gave it to you?”
“She told me she always wanted to give it to you someday,” Ben says, kissing her hand again. “You should ask her about it, sometime.”
“I will, I will,” she says—
—“right now, I—I want you to propose to me.”
“One knee and everything?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.
She shakes her head. “No, it's New York, the ground is gross. Plus, I kind of hate that.” She turns around, looking for a trashcan, and tosses her coffee cup vaguely in the direction of the first one she sees, then turns back to Ben. She lifts her free hand, and cups his cheek with it, smoothing her thumb along his cheekbone. His stubble scratches over her palm. “Just propose to me. Please.”
He smiles, and turns his head, kissing her palm. “Devi,” he says, and just her name on his lips is enough to make her melt. “When you were six, you promised me that you would marry me one day, without your mom's permission. And since then, a lot has changed—you’re just a little bit taller—but, a lot has stayed the same. You're still loud and tough and the kind of smart that gets you put on government watchlists—”
“—and you’re insanely beautiful. You still drive me crazy, and you still eat food spicy enough to make me cry. You still like wearing red even though your favourite colour is blue, and I still end up stepping on more earrings than you ever wear. And, this is going to sound crazy, but I want to step on them for the rest of my life because that means you’re spending it with me.”
He stops, taking a deep breath—
—Devi is sure that she is crying—
—and kissing her hand, each of her fingers individually. “I want to marry you,” he says, finally, “I want to marry you. I want you to marry me. Please, please marry me.”
She smiles. “Will I have to share my bedroom with you?” she asks, her voice watery.
He laughs, and brushes his lips against her hand—
—eventually, that is going to make her head spin—
—“not if you don’t want to.”
“I think I’ll want to,” she says, and kisses his hand this time.
“Is that a yes?”
“Do you even have to ask?”
“I just want to hear it,” he admits—
—he has the bluest eyes she has ever seen—
—his face splitting into a grin.
“Yes, I will marry you,” she says, and tilts up to kiss him, quick and soft. She is not that cold anymore. “Let's go home.”
“So you can call the council and take a vote on whether saying yes was the right choice?” Ben jokes, throwing an arm over her shoulders. She laughs, circling her index finger around his fingertips.
“No, so I can rub it in Eleanors face that she isn't the only engaged one anymore,” Devi says, “and so I can call my amma and my akka. I have to tell Pujeetha that she can start calling you uncle.”
“Perfect,” Ben says, tilting down to kiss her temple. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”