"Only one week!" Neha said.
"One week?" said Kunal.
"Absolutely, why not?" That was Sam. He hardly knew himself why he had said that. It had just come out.
"Why, what? No, absolutely not!" Kunal got that lost-sheep look around his eyes.
"Come on, you guys!" That was Neha, slapping the table with her palms. "You just have to give up one of your rooms for seven days only."
They were in the staff cafeteria of the Howard Medical Center. Kunal had finished a shoot for Verve on the roof garden of the Center. Neha, as editor-in-chief, had come along to supervise.
Sam who had brokered the permissions had just come off his shift on Ward 6. He was still in his nurse's scrubs with his stethoscope and ID lanyard dangling around his neck. He was wholly unprepared for this discussion. For that matter, he was wholly unprepared to be sitting at a table in his place of work with Kunal. Kunal with his shoulders bulging out of his sleeveless red vest and his lips wet with the tea he had ordered.
"Listen, guys," Neha said. "I owe M so much, and finally I have an opportunity to repay him. It's not his fault that his apartment's under water. And it's not my fault that my own room is completely bare because, you know, my furniture's all at Abhi's now. So, guys, please?"
"But," Kunal said.
Sam said nothing, just swirled the milk around in his tea.
"I'm tired of pretending," Kunal said.
"Yes, same to same," said Sam and looked up. "I also am tired of pretending." And he looked at Kunal who looked at Neha who laughed and said,
"But nobody will need to pretend! M's got a new boyfriend! He's not going to be chasing you around! No need to do the whole fake gay boyfriends thing!"
"Who's his boyfriend?" said Sam.
"I don't know, guys. I haven't met him yet. Someone he got to know through us, apparently."
"Through us?" said Kunal.
"Plus they'll be paying rent for one of your rooms. So you'll be saving two thousand!"
"Well, that's fine, then," said Sam. "M can come. His boyfriend can come. It's all totally fine."
Kunal looked as if he'd swallowed a nimbu whole.
That night, Sam spent two hours tidying his room in readiness for its temporary occupants. He shoved any incriminating evidence into a garbage bag -- an old Penthouse magazine (fairly embarrassing), a pack of suppositories from the ward's supply room and necessary for a certain digestive ailment a few weeks back (quite embarrassing), a stack of Marvel comics (mildly embarrassing) and two copies of Butt magazine (wildly embarrassing). He stuffed the bag straight into the garbage chute in the kitchen.
He went back into his room and looked around. His CDs sat on the circular book case in an orderly fashion. The pouch with the darts rested on one of the orange chairs under the dart board. He removed the photo of his maa standing on the headboard and tucked it into his tote bag.
Sam knelt down and checked the contents of his overnight tote: nurse's scrubs, neatly folded; spare boxers; mints; clean T-shirt; vitamin tablets; bottle of water; alarm clock; photo of maa. He carried it all through the connecting bathroom doors into Kunal's room.
Kunal lay sprawled on his bed, barefoot, in a blue sleeveless hoodie that was unzipped down to his navel. His oversized red angle poise lamp cast a butter-yellow spot light on him. He had headphones on and his iPod in one hand. Socks, T-shirts and empty film cylinders littered the floor. A sleep mask was draped over the back of the desk chair, and various dumbbells lay strewn across the two armchairs under the window. Sam tripped on a flip-flop.
Kunal took off his headphones. "What's up, yaar?"
Sam looked around for somewhere to hang his scrubs.
"You can have the bathroom side of the bed," said Kunal. "It's sort of your side. From all the times you've come in here after watching some mildly scary movie."
"Very funny," said Sam.
A key rattled in the lock out in the entrance hall.
Sam spun around.
Kunal straightened. "What do we do? Do we go out and say hello?"
A thump came from the living room. Then a loud squeal, laughter, M's falsetto giggle and another man's low-pitched growl.
Kunal's eyes widened.
"Yoohoo!" came M's voice, enthusiastic. "Boys? It's me! Murli!"
"Oh shit, oh shit," said Kunal.
"It's fine, chill," said Sam who was feeling far from chill himself. "We're just going to go out there and we're going to be friendly and we're going to have a nice little chat and --"
"It's me and guess who's here with me?" M's voice cooeed. There was a crash as of some small object falling to the floor.
"Er, hi!" Sam called out brightly through the closed door.
M's voice bubbled over with cheer. "Guess who's here? Can you guess? It's Javier, boys! You remember Javier?"
"Javier?" mouthed Kunal.
"Who?" said Sam.
M shrieked. The other man growled, and that growl sounded horrifyingly familiar.
"Immigration officer Javier?" Kunal squawked.
"Oh god," said Sam.
Music started up in the living room. A bass beat and fast percussion and the first strains of 'Beedi' from Omkara.
There was the sound of clinking glasses, more laughter, and then a loud knock on the door and the tipsy voice of the immigration officer, "Boys, hey, boys!"
Kunal put his hands over his ears.
"Go away," Sam said under his breath, and then out loud and bright, "Yes, hello, officer?"
"Oh, he isn't your officer tonight!" cried M. "He's just here to have a whole load of maza. Aren't you, my naughty little Javvi?" He pronounced it Kh'avi, with the guttural sound of an Urdu 'kh'. "Come and join the fun, boys!"
"Er, no, no." Sam looked frantically at Kunal who looked frantic. "We can't come out. We're..." He cleared his throat and in his campest voice called out, "We're busy, you know, hahah!"
"Ah, busy!" shouted the immigration officer. "I like it! Did you hear that, Murlecito? They're busy!"
"Murlecito?" mouthed Kunal.
"Well, my darling ladoo," cried M. "Shall we get busy also?"
"Sasurrrri," trilled Sukhwinder's voice from the sound system in the living room. And, "I love dirty dancing!" trilled M's voice alongside it.
"I'm not going out there," said Kunal.
"We don't need to," said Sam. "We're busy, remember?"
"Oh, shit, oh, shit. We can't pretend not to pretend, can we? We'll get deported!"
"Don't be so dramatic," said Sam but he wasn't sure himself of what the legal ramifications of having smuggled yourself into the country via the whole 'fake boyfriends' thing were.
"So what do we do now?"
"Sure you don't want to join us out here?" came Murli's voice. "We're going to go for a swiiiiim!"
"No, no," called Sam. "We are fine in here. Me and... jiggery poo!"
Kunal made frantic eyebrow movements and then seemed to collect himself, straightened his spine and called out cheerily, "Yes, all very good here, thank you." He even brought his index and little finger to his chin although the only person to see it was Sam.
The music in the living room changed into something different. It wasn't filmi music any longer but some sort of Latin sound, with a steamy male voice singing in Spanish. There was a crash and a splash but what was happening on the terrace wasn't visible because Kunal's room didn't have a view of the terrace. Its windows looked out on some other windows in some other façade, and his sliding glass door gave onto the back patio with Auntie's pot plants and the outdoor dining table.
Sam, overcome by an unexpected stroke of curiosity, tiptoed out onto the patio and peered round the corner, across the expanse of the living room, through the glass door and onto the terrace on the other side.
He felt a breath on his nape. Kunal was right behind him.
At first, they saw nothing. But then there came some spluttering, and out of the pool climbed M, wearing nothing but a pair of gold lamé bathing trunks. And from the kitchen came officer Javier, naked as the day he was born, shimmying across the hardwood floor, bearing two wine glasses in his outstretched arms. His pale buttocks wiggled to the rhythm of the music. M performed some surprisingly agile bhangra moves, and officer Javier's voice broke out in a hearty, "you dirty boy!"
Sam looked around. Kunal gaped, with his mouth half-open and his eyebrows in a quizzical V.
"They're actually kind of sweet, nah," said Sam. He meant it, too. M being so careful with the pronunciation of officer Javier's name, and officer Javier calling out endearments in his own language, and their physical ease with one another -- it gave him a funny feeling inside his rib cage. And also made him feel ever so slightly guilty, not only because he'd lied to Neha but because he'd made a mockery of something which was clearly genuine and heartfelt for these two.
"Oooh, boys!" M had caught sight of them and waved. His hair was wet, he had taken off his glasses and was squinting in their direction, and then he started to sashay across the room towards the patio.
Kunal stumbled backwards into his room. Sam pushed against him and nearly slipped on a discarded towel.
Sam threw back his hair, gave a wild laugh, wiggled his fingers and caught hold of Kunal's arm. "Wha--" said Kunal but before he could protest, Sam had flung him backwards onto the mattress and flung himself across him. He looked back at M and grinned, and when officer Javier hove into view behind M, Sam on impulse threw his arms around Kunal's shoulders and fluttered his eye lids in a mad staccato.
"What are you--" Kunal began.
"Just shut up," Sam said pleasantly through grinning teeth. "Shut up and bounce."
Without further ado, Sam started to bounce up and down on the bed. Kunal's mattress was unexpectedly elastic. There was a lot of give, and when he bounced, they both sank deep into the bedding, and then sprang up again, and it wasn't all that great for Sam's lower back but he kept going, and then a fiercely embarrassing thing happened, pure stimulus-response, of course, he'd seen it happen hundreds of times on the ward, and suddenly, fervently, he wished he'd worn a bit more than these wafer-thin cotton cargo shorts.
"Dude," said Kunal and went rigid underneath him.
"Just keep smiling, just keep bouncing," said Sam whose cheeks were starting to ache with the smiling and the bouncing and the effort of keeping his hips levered up high. "Because we are being watched, my brother. By the officer. From the immigrations department."
"Sam," said Kunal. "They're no longer watching us."
Nor were they. Sam's eyes swivelled patio-wards. Officer Javier and M were locked in a passionate embrace.
Highly inappropriately, a memory flashed across his mind: Kunal's mouth on his, blue lights dancing, that song from Kaalia playing over the loudspeakers, the distant applause of a crowd like the roar of the sea in his ears. It had been a sensory overload and an emotional overload. The whole strain of appeasing Neha, the shock of seeing Abhi by her side, the guilt, the shame, the proximity of Kunal, the coming to a head of their whole charade.
Also, the ways in which he had fallen into that fake role. It had been so easy. When he had crooned and pursed his lips and called Kunal by pet names, he had sometimes felt the role fall over him like a soft shirt, tailor-made for him, not too tight, not too loose, a comfortable mantle that felt as if he could prolong it indefinitely. Not that he always wanted to croon and shriek. He wasn't M, after all. But even dancing and hopping about with M had been strangely fun, as if something inside him were blossoming that previously hadn't had a chance to come out.
"What are they doing?" Kunal whispered.
Sam's arms ached from keeping himself hovering in the air above Kunal's body. "What do you think they're doing?" he managed.
"That is so..." began Kunal.
"Gay?" prompted Sam.
"Yes, gay! And we're not."
"That kiss, though," Sam couldn't help saying, "that kiss was a bit gay."
Outside, there was some definite gay kissing going on. Officer Javier's lean body slithered nakedly against M's more rotund form.
"That kiss was definitely a bit gay."
Kunal frowned. "Are you..."
"Nothing." Sam could hear his voice, high and hysterical. "I'm nothing."
He rolled off Kunal but Kunal had somehow kept a hold of him and rolled with him so they ended up on the side of the bed, with Sam on his back and Kunal on top of him. Kunal's chest pressed against Sam's shirtfront, and Kunal's groin pressed against Sam's groin, and the whole situation was spiralling out of control at an alarming rate.
"That was not a gay kiss," Kunal said.
Sam tried to remember the topic of conversation or if there had been one. Instead, Kunal's mention of the kiss took Sam right back into the Delano again. They'd been up on that podium and they had chickened out. He, Sam, had definitely chickened out. He had turned his face away and then it had been Kunal who had manfully gripped Sam's shoulder with a surprisingly strong grasp, and who had pulled Sam towards himself and who had just... gone for it.
Nobody had ever kissed Sam like that.
Usually, it was Sam who cajoled and flirted and charmed his way into a woman's pants. The kiss was a waystation en route to the pants. It wasn't this gift of trust that Kunal had bestowed on Sam that night.
"I don't know," Sam said breathlessly. "Two guys kissing? That's pretty gay."
"Not if they're kissing because they're being made to."
The lights flickered outside on the patio and went off, no longer triggered by the motion sensor. Apparently, M and officer Javier were no longer out there. Which meant they didn't have to be lying on top of one another any longer. But Sam didn't move, and Kunal didn't, either.
"So what are you saying." Sam was struggling to remember sentences. "If I kissed you now, would that be not gay? Because we're not being made to kiss?"
"No, that also would not be gay. Because nothing we do could be gay. Okay?"
"So." Sam swallowed. "I could totally kiss you now and that would not be gay and you would be fine with it?"
"Kiss shmiss," said Kunal, and Sam lifted his head, closed his eyes and pressed his lips to Kunal's.
There was no applause. No blue lights flashed, no music blared but there was a roaring in Sam's ears all the same.
He took his lips away.
Kunal's expression was unreadable. A drop of saliva clung to his lower lip. A heart beat raced inside a rib cage and Sam couldn't be sure: was it Kunal's rib cage or his own?
"I love you, dude," Sam said. "You know that, right?"
"I love you, too," Kunal said. "And that was not a gay kiss."
Sam burst out laughing.
And at that, Kunal broke into a wide grin, dimples digging grooves into his cheeks.
Sam felt something inside himself relax a little bit. But he also felt something else slipping away. That bit of tension, that bit of awkwardness, it was sliding into their easy banter and camaraderie, and he wished, he almost wished...
"That was not a gay kiss," Kunal said. "Because this-- this is a gay kiss." And with that, Kunal grabbed Sam's shoulder and pressed his lips, open-mouthed, to Sam's.
In his surprise, Sam's mouth fell open and Kunal's tongue snuck inside like a little wriggling fish.
"Oh," went Sam.
And if he had thought that Kunal had been firm in the Delano, that was nothing compared to what he was being now. Kunal was being positively forceful. He moved his lips across Sam's lips and his wet tongue across Sam's wet tongue, his teeth bumped Sam's teeth, and the breath from his nostrils was hot against Sam's skin. Kunal's body was heavy, so heavy, and his chest was naked, so naked, so smooth against Sam's shirt, and then Sam's shirt rode up a little and his own belly touched Kunal's belly, and all of it, all of it was overwhelmingly, breathtakingly gay.
"I'm tired of pretending," Sam blurted against Kunal's mouth.
"Are we pretending?" Kunal said.
"I'm not," said Sam.
The music in the living room changed to some slow ballad. The angle poise lamp cast half of Kunal's face into shadow.
"Were you before?" said Kunal. "Pretending?"
"I don't know. No. Yes."
"I know what you keep in your room, yaar. Those magazines."
"Oh god," said Sam. His embarrassment coursed hot through his entire body, up his spine, down his front and then straight into his already embarrassing crotch.
Kunal began to grind up and down against Sam's body ever so slightly, a motion as small as a wave lapping against the side of a swimming pool.
Sam put one hand on Kunal's hip and the other hand he lifted to Kunal's face. He felt the edge of Kunal's eye, the wing of his brow, the feathers of his lashes.
"Those magazines?" said Kunal. "They can be inspiration, maybe?"
"Oh, Kunal," Sam said. "Oh, Kunal."
"Only one week!" Sam said.
"Yes, one week," said Neha. "Just one more week."
She had rung them up, to see how things were going. Sam had put her on speaker phone. He was on the living room sofa, with his head on Kunal's shoulder.
Neha went on, "The plumbing-wallah isn't coming until Wednesday, you know how it is. And then there's the water damage. But the painting and decorating can probably happen even once M has moved back home."
"It's fine," said Kunal. "It's all totally fine. M can stay; his boyfriend can stay. For as long as they like!"
"You guys are the best!" cried Neha.
"Yes," whispered Sam into Kunal's ear. "You are the best, my jiggery poo."
© the author.
17 December 2021.